This Week in Research: Saving Endangered Horses & Predicting Alzheimer’s Years in Advance

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Przewalski’s horse is a short, stocky equine species that looks vaguely prehistoric, like the kind of animal you can imagine a caveman riding. The species went extinct in  the wild in the 1960s, and there are fewer than 2,000 left in the world today. But University of Maryland grad and reproductive biologist Budhan Pukazhenthi is trying to change that–one horse urine sample at a time.

Even the Przewalski’s horses that exist in captivity are still wild at heart; according to the National Zoo, no one has ever successfully put a halter on a Przewalski’s horse. That made using normal techniques like artificial insemination quite difficult. That didn’t stop Pukazhenthi — quite the contrary, in fact. “I look for projects where people have tried and failed,” Pukazhenthi says. “With wild horses, word had gotten around, saying collecting semen from a stallion couldn’t be done.” Getting there meant seven years of collecting urine samples from damp dirt in order to get a better sense of the animals’ reproductive cycle. All that unglamorous work paid off earlier this summer, when Pukazhenthi and his team oversaw the first successful artificial insemination of a Przewalski’s horse. Here’s hoping there are many more to come!

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What if you could take a test to find out whether you would develop Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms began to emerge? Thanks to research by Johns Hopkins neurologists, that may be a possibility in the near future. The researchers found that certain biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid were a strong indication that mild cognitive impairment would ensue over the next five years. (Mild cognitive impairment is often an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.) And by continuing to measure the protein levels, they could get even more certainty; the higher the level of phosphorylated tau, the more likely the person was to develop symptoms.

As yet, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s, which might make people wary of getting tested; why would you want to know bad news if there was nothing to be done about it? “When we see patients with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, we don’t say we will wait to treat you until you get congestive heart failure. Early treatments keep heart disease patients from getting worse, and it’s possible the same may be true for those with pre-symptomatic Alzheimer’s,” says Marilyn Albert, a Johns Hopkins professor of neurology and the study’s primary investigator.



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