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Health Team

Duke researchers asking if tiny lemurs hold answers to Alzhiemer's

Posted January 14, 2019 12:54 p.m. EST
Updated January 14, 2019 7:36 p.m. EST

The work happens under red lights to fool the subject into thinking it's night time.

Anna Casey is used to the weird lighting in her workspace. She spends about three hours a day studying mouse lemurs at Duke's Lemur Center.

"They are small lemurs. They are gray. They are nocturnal so they have these very big eyes for letting in as much light as possible and they are very cute," said Casey who is a research Scientist.

Casey is studying the tiny animals because she believes they have a lot to teach us about Alzheimer's Disease.

"We really need good primate models because they are our closest living relatives," she said.

She thinks mouse lemurs are the answer. She says 20 percent of them develop some sort of neurodegeneration as they age, which is what can lead to Alzheimer's in humans. They also don't live very long meaning scientists can study them for an entire lifespan pretty easily.

Mouse lemurs live about five years in the wild and can live up to 15 years in captivity.

"Treatments that we couldn't use on humans until they are 60 or 70 we can use on mouse lemurs when they are 6," Casey said.

She has been working with these animals for the past two years training them to interact with touch screens in a small cage. The lemurs are rewarded with pineapple juice when they successfully complete the task. Casey will eventually use this experiment to test for memory loss.

The Duke Lemur Center is completely non-invasive which means no animals are ever harmed or punished during experiments. Each participates voluntarily with hopes of a reward.

"We are trying to train them to touch the screen and the very first cognitive task we will do is something called a discrimination task and it's basically them just learning to associate one image that comes on the screen with a reward," Casey said.

"Of course, Alzheimer's is a devastating disease for humans and there really hasn't been huge advances made through animal studies," said Erin Ehmke who is the Director of Research at the Duke Lemur Center.

Casey is hoping her research can eventually lead to more effective ways to treat the disease in humans. Its a huge goal for very tiny creatures.