Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only disease listed on the World Health Organization’s top 10 causes of death that cannot be cured.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s and which diagnostic and treatment options are available to seniors with the disease today.
Facts About Alzheimer’s
Before delving into what’s new on the horizon for Alzheimer’s research, it’s important to understand what we know about the disease today:
- Alzheimer’s is associated with a sticky substance in the brain called beta-amyloid protein. When amyloid gets deposited in the brain, it interferes with the normal transmission of nerve cells — and eventually leads to the early death of these cells.
- Another abnormal protein called tau tangles are thought to deprive the nerve cells in the brain of vital nutrients.
- Amyloid and tau tangles are considered hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
- The disease process starts in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is normally involved in memory. That’s why memory loss is one of the first symptoms of the disease.
- There are several stages of Alzheimer’s, beginning with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
- The earlier stages of the disease involve memory loss and mild symptoms. Dementia occurs in the later stages of AD, and involves the inability to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), such as bathing, cooking, dressing and eating.
- Alzheimer’s is thought to begin in the brain 20-30 years before symptoms ever occur, so early diagnosis and treatment interventions are vital to slowing down or stopping the disease process all together.
New Diagnostic and Treatment Options for Alzheimer’s
Scientists say they are “cautiously hopeful” when it comes to developing effective new treatments to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s. An increase in the level of knowledge and understanding of just how AD effects the brain may lead to promising new Alzheimer’s treatments – and help short-circuit the disease process.
In the modern-day world of Alzheimer’s research, there are some exciting new possibilities. Two such new modes of treatment have never been used before for Alzheimer’s disease. These include:
- Drugs that may help lower beta amyloid levels and others that work to untwist abnormal tau protein
- New drugs that help memory and vaccines that suppress the immune system, are two other examples of future treatment options for the disease
None of these new drugs so far have been deemed the holy grail for a new Alzheimer’s cure. Many experts feel that the answer to the puzzle will come in the form of a “cocktail” of sorts, with individualized treatment designed to address the many facets of the disease.
This treatment approach, similar to modern therapy methods for cancer and HIV, makes sense, particularly when you consider that AD is a disease with various stages each with its own set of symptoms.
Treating Alzheimer’s by Targeting Amyloid Plaques
Because scientists understand the involvement of a sticky abnormal protein in the brain, called beta amyloid plaques, new studies are underway to take aim at interrupting the growth of these microscopic clumps. Beta amyloid interferes with normal nerve transmission, resulting in memory and thinking problems. Amyloid plaques are considered a hallmark of the disease.
Several new drugs called “monoclonal antibodies” are thought to work to prevent amyloid from clumping to form the unwanted plaques in the brain. The body normally produces these antibodies, which naturally respond to foreign invaders. Two new drugs in the monoclonal antibody class include aducanumab and solanezumab. In preliminary studies, these drugs were considered effective for people in the early stages of AD (with mild symptoms such as memory loss). But more studies are required before the drug can be offered to the public.
One recent finding in Alzheimer’s studies was a substance (another protein) called “Fyn,” which becomes over-activated when combined with beta-amyloid. This results in a trigger that goes off to cause destruction of nerve cell connections, or synapses, in the brain. A new drug called saracatinib is being tested in mice studies to observe whether the drug can turn off Fyn, allowing nerve transmissions to function normally again. The mice studies were effective and now, saracatinib is being tested in human clinical research studies.
Treating Alzheimer’s by Interrupting Tau Tangles
When the protein in the brain called “tau” ends up abnormally twisted, this is yet another abnormality occurring as a symptom of Alzheimer’s. This process causes a collapse of the system normally responsible for transporting nutrients to the brain cells.
Tau tangles interfere with the brain cells’ ability to receive vital nutrients, ultimately resulting in death of the neurons or brain cells.
Scientists are currently working on new vaccines and other types of drugs that may prevent tau from forming these abnormal tangles.
Treating Alzheimer’s by Reducing Inflammation in the Brain
Chronic low-level brain cell inflammation has been noted in people with Alzheimer’s.
Another new experimental treatment for AD involves finding a way to reduce the inflammation process.
Ways You Can Help End Alzheimer’s
The progress of finding new treatment for Alzheimer’s depends on successful clinical trials. New drugs cannot be made available to the public until they have gone through all phases of clinical trials to ensure they can halt, or slow down, the process of AD, and that they are safe for long-term human use.
Researchers anticipate the need for over 4,000 new participants to get involved by volunteering for clinical trials. People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and those who are healthy enough to participate as controls are needed.
Search the free tool through the Alzheimer’s Association called TrialMatch that is offered for people with AD and their caregivers and family members, to find out how to get involved in clinical trials.
Are you optimistic about these new diagnostic and treatment options for Alzheimer’s? Why or why not? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.