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Medical research and subsequent breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s treatment are advancing at a fast and furious pace—and 2017 may prove to be a benchmark year. While it is too soon to say that the cure for this disease is right around the corner, the news and research is trending in a positive direction.


For those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and the millions more who are affected by Alzheimer’s through a loved one, better prevention and treatments could not come soon enough—Alzheimer’s and related dementias kill one in three seniors, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in Americans. Though there is no current cure, there are some recent advancements in treatment that show promise.


Medications and Therapy

A major potential indicator of Alzheimer’s in the brain is the buildup of a sticky plaque know as beta-amyloid. By attempting to prevent the buildup of this plaque, drugs and therapies may be able to prevent, or at the very least, offset the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Currently, the two most prescribed drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s are known as Aricept and Namenda. These drugs only treat the disease’s symptoms and can only guarantee relief for six to 12 months. New plaque-attacking drugs could go further in long-term prevention and progression of Alzheimer’s.


One promising drug is currently in phase one development and testing by the biotechnology company Biogen. The drug, aducanumab, proved promising in early tests in slowing down memory loss in patients that were given a large dose of the drug. More testing is required by the Food and Drug Administration before aducanumab is available on the market, but if the positive results continue, we could see the drug debut to the public within five years.


Aducanumab will not be the only option going forward, as plaque-attacking and prevention is the primary focus of other drug research trials in 2017. A drug known as ALZ-801 is in phase three of development by Alzheon, and while clinical trials did not meet their stated goal, they did inch closer to effectiveness. Another drug in development, solanezumab—developed by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly—also attacks Alzheimer’s-linked plaque in the brain. While more research needs to be conducted before we see solanezumab or ALZ-801 on the market as well, the exciting news is that if these plaque-attacking drugs do prove to be effective, Alzheimer’s may be halted and contained at a very early stage.


Another approach to halting Alzheimer’s is blocking the cellular pathway that eventually leads to brain shrinkage and death. A large study conducted by the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke focuses on repurposing drugs that are currently on or close to being on the market for Alzheimer’s treatment. The study, which was conducted using mice, found two drugs, Desyrel and dibenzoylmethane, to be somewhat successful. Desyrel is used to treat depression, and dibenzoylmethane is used in cancer trials. While the Institute has not yet tested on humans, the results are promising.


Non-Drug Related Treatments

While drug therapies may prove to be the most effective means so far in the fight against Alzheimer’s, not all current research and breakthroughs are drug related. One such study published by the University of Maryland in May 2017 concluded that physical activity may offer hope in rebuilding some of the brain connections that are lost by Alzheimer’s sufferers. The 12-week study was conducted with a group of older adults between the ages 60 and 88 diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. The study group was put through a thorough walking program; after the walking intervention concluded, the study group showed a better ability to remember a list of words than they did at the start of the trial. Brain scans also revealed increased connectivity in 10 different regions of the brain. The study is just the start of what may prove to be a fascinating new avenue in Alzheimer’s treatment.


An interesting alternative to direct drug related treatment in the future may also be found with ultrasound. A research team at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, bred a group of mice specifically with Alzheimer’s-related enzymes and used ultrasound to successfully eliminate them in 75% of the mice without any damage to the brain. The research is at a very early stage, but has led to other institutions exploring the potential of ultrasound as a future treatment for Alzheimer’s.


Early Detection and Prevention 

Currently, Alzheimer’s is detected in patients once they start to show symptoms, mainly brain damage. If researchers can find the accurate correlations to early signs of Alzheimer’s, potential treatments can be applied earlier and perhaps with more success. These signs are called biomarkers, and they are something in the body that can accurately measure the presence of a disease. One potential biomarker is the beta-amyloid plaque; however, some people have been found to have the plaque around their brain and show no symptoms of Alzheimer’s.


Brain imaging is one way to try to find and detect potential biomarkers. Brain scans can also find ailments such as fluid buildup and evidence of strokes, other potential indicators of Alzheimer’s. Another potential biomarker is the protein level found in brain fluid. Alzheimer’s has been shown to affect the levels of protein in brain fluid, though each person has different levels of protein and there is currently no baseline measurement. Current research is also being geared toward finding potential biomarkers in blood and urine. Yet another potential biomarker can be found in the genetic makeup of patients. Scientists have identified three genes that cause Alzheimer’s, but, just like brain plaque, the presence of their mutations does not guarantee Alzheimer’s will occur.


The future of prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s is bright, and while the cure has yet to be found, recent research is promising. As one of the leading killers in the United States, the focus of the medical community is clear. Hope is abundant—new advancements in tech and medical care have ushered in a sense of optimism for treatment in the coming years.

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