Recent breakthroughs have expanded the medical community’s understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, providing hope that new and effective treatments are on the horizon to assist the millions of people who are living with this incurable condition.
More than 44 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. The numbers are expected to reach an estimated 75.6 million in 2030 as the population continues to age.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. Most people with Alzheimer’s are over age 65, but up to 5 percent experience early onset Alzheimer’s in their 40s and 50s. This devastating disease develops when clumps of proteins called beta-amyloid and tau accumulate in the brain over a period of years, silently killing neurons that eventually lead to irreversible brain damage, mental decline and an inability to communicate and handle daily living activities.
While no cure for Alzheimer’s disease exists, recent studies are shedding light on possible ways to identify and treat at-risk patients early, before brain damage occurs and symptoms appear. Among the areas of study:
Experimental antibody therapy
New research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International conference shows that an experimental drug called solanezumab appears to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by 30 percent among patients who took the medication in the early stages of the disease. The antibody therapy works by tackling beta amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs the brain and eventually destroys viral connections between the cells. Patients who took solanezumab early preserved more of their cognitive and functional ability. Those who took the drug for 3 ½ years had better cognitive function than those who took the medication for two years. The research indicates that targeting people in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease with antibody treatments is the best way to slow or perhaps stop disease.
The search for biomarkers in blood
Researchers are hopeful that one day a simple blood test could hold the key to identifying those at risk for Alzheimer’s at least a decade before symptoms of the disease such as memory loss appear. Researchers believe proteins called exosomes that are released by brain cells into the blood could serve as biomarkers that indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages. A study involving people with and without Alzheimer’s found that people with the disease had similar elevated exosome levels compared with healthy people, even before their symptoms developed. Researchers are working to identify biomarkers that accurately detect pathogenic changes in the brain before symptoms develop.
Brain scans and cerebrospinal fluid analysis
A brain scan along with an analysis of cerebrospinal fluid could predict Alzheimer’s years in advance, allowing people who are at risk in middle age to benefit from future treatments. Positron emission tomography (PET) brain scans can show crucial chemical changes that could potentially spark the onset of Alzheimer’s. An analysis of the clear cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord provides further clues as to whether an individual is likely to get Alzheimer’s in the future. One study looked at healthy people ages 45 to 75 who received scans and had their CSF examined every three years. Research suggests that Alzheimer’s disease in early stages may cause changes in CSF levels of tau and beta-amyloid, the two proteins that form abnormal brain deposits that are strongly linked to the disease.
Although a cure for Alzheimer’s remains elusive, researchers are making headway in identifying new strategies for earlier diagnosis and potential treatment options that slow the progression of the disease.