Finding the Cure to Alzheimer's

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With age comes the scary prospect of losing one’s memory, perhaps our most precious commodity. Alzheimer’s disease affects over 5 million people in the United States right now, but new findings suggest a cure might be in sight.

Last month, an experimental drug called Aducanumab, developed by the Washington DC-based pharmaceutical company Biogen, was shown to eliminate pockets of beta amyloid proteins in the brains of patients with early onset Alzheimer’s. These amyloid “plaques” are believed to contribute to the loss of cognitive function.

Aducanumab is made up of small Y-shaped antibodies that attack toxic substances in the body and allow for the immune system to do its work of flushing them out.

Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association, explained that it has taken years to get to the point of being able to identify these plaques.

“The clumping of the beta amyloid is one of the hallmark brain changes we see in Alzheimer’s disease,” she says. “Targeting that particular hallmark has been really a focus of the field for the last 15 years or so.”

There are many factors involved in preventing memory loss, and each person’s treatment varies drastically. Medication is crucial, but so, too, is diet. Ideally, it’s a mix of the two.

Snyder’s colleague, Dr. James A. Hendrix, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer’s Association, agrees.

“It is a hopeful sign,” he tells the LA Times. “This is a small trial, but it still is exciting for a number of reasons.

The purpose of the trial is to measure the safety of Aducanumab in various doses, and the evidence so far shows that it’s dramatically working to clear the amyloid plaques that thwart the flow of brain cell communication.

As the doses have increased, more amyloid has been removed from patients. By the end of the study, those given the highest doses had little to no trace of it left in their bodies.

This data, while thrilling, is far from definitive. There are other things to consider, like “selective drop-out,” which is the loss of specific subjects from research, or chance. Dr. Hendrix hopes to see the findings confirmed soon.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” he says.

And despite how long it took to find the amyloid plaques in the first place, Dr. Snyder is encouraged by how quickly advances are made.

“When we think about Alzheimer’s,” she says, “in fact it’s about a 35-year-old field, in terms of about 90 to 95 percent of what we understand about the disease.”

Still, she says, there are many factors involved in preventing memory loss, and each person’s treatment varies drastically. Medication is crucial, but so, too, is diet. Ideally, it’s a mix of the two.

“And that’s really where the field in Alzheimer’s is moving, is this idea of a potential combination,” Snyder explains. Whether it’s medication and lifestyle or medication and other medication, the best way to conquer this disease is through individualized therapy.

Assuming Aducanumab succeeds in larger trials, the first truly preventative drug will be here within years. The trials are ongoing, but researchers in the field are eagerly awaiting the results, encouraged by the drug’s positive effects, and anticipating more clinical benefits.

Beyond that, there is the exciting idea of early blood tests for dementia, which would theoretically locate the disease decades before its first physical signs, something universities are working on right now.

It may be a long road, but these are important steps along the way.