Symptoms of Degenerative Brain Disease

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson we'll first review what degenerative brain disease is. Next, we'll cover different categories of symptoms and look at some examples of diseases.

What is Degenerative Brain Disease?

Imagine coming home and being unable to remember who the people in the photos on your desk are. Your couch and handmade blanket don't ring any bells, either, and you wonder why there is a dog bowl in the kitchen.

For most people this scene would feel like home, but for someone with degenerative brain disease, one's home feels like someone else's place. Degenerative brain disease causes brain tissue to break down over time. The symptoms of degenerative brain disease can be divided into cognitive symptoms, or those that affect thoughts and emotions, and muscular symptoms, or those that affect the body.

Cognitive Symptoms

The brain is the control center for the body. It is composed of millions of neurons, or brain cells that relay messages between the brain and the body, telling our entire body what to do. Specific pathways of communication between neurons are responsible for all of our thoughts and emotions, or cognitive function. Each part of the brain has a specific job, so depending on what part of the brain is affected, there are different symptoms. Let's look at some examples of cognitive symptoms in different diseases.

Alzheimer's Disease

Probably the most well known degenerative brain disease is Alzheimer's disease (AD). In this disease neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that regulates memory storage, start to die. The neuronal death spreads to other parts of the brain later in the disease.

Degeneration in the AD brain
Alzheimers disease

What might start off as confusion, difficulty regulating emotions, and minor slips in memory will become extreme memory lapses in later stages, with patients struggling to recognize family members and familiar places. Eventually the disease will advance so that patients may not know who they are, or what time or place they are in.

Prion Disease

Although most degenerative diseases of the brain are genetic or have unknown causes, prion disease is caused by transmissible proteins called prions. Prions are part of normal, healthy neurons, but the diseased prions are shaped incorrectly. They cause the normal prions in the brain to become misshapen also, leading to neuronal death. Prion disease is transmitted through consuming contaminated tissue from the nervous system, which can sometimes be spread through processing and consuming contaminated meat.

Cows with diseased prions can no longer stand in pens and can pass on the diseased prions to humans.
mad cow disease

In a specific prion disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), the primary part of the brain affected is the cerebral cortex. This is the outermost layer of the brain. It is responsible for processing sensory information as well as for complex thought processes like creativity, emotion, memory, and language. People with CJD experience mood disorders, such as increased aggression or depression. Speech becomes slurred and the individual may experience difficulty finding the right word or constructing coherent language. As with Alzheimer's disease, memory is also impaired, although memory loss is not the main symptom. Problems moving and swallowing, as well as hallucinations, also appear as the disease progresses.

Muscular Symptoms

Since the brain controls all bodily functions, many symptoms are muscular as well as cognitive. Most degenerative brain diseases have both cognitive and muscular symptoms, but here we'll examine two diseases that primarily affect motor control.

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