Alzheimer’s Disease Breakthroughs on the Horizon

in Alzheimer's & Dementia

Staggering statistics push researchers for more answers


About 5.8 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Without new Alzheimer’s disease breakthroughs that effectively slow, prevent, or cure the disease, that number is expected to climb to 13.8 million by 2050. That’s more than the entire population of New York City and Los Angeles combined.

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, currently has no cure. The two types of medications available—Cholinesterase inhibitors and Memantine (Namenda)—slow progression of symptoms, but only for a time.

As our population ages, researchers are working diligently to find a better solution. A few positive developments give hope to Alzheimer’s disease patients, caregivers, and families.

One of the frustrating things about Alzheimer’s disease is the only way doctors can confirm diagnosis is through autopsy. Otherwise, doctors conduct a series of cognitive tests, laboratory tests, and brain imaging tests to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms.


Promising Advancements

The Imaging Dementia—Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS) study showed promising results for a brain imaging test that can detect the disease. The study found that amyloid PET scans can help clinicians diagnose the cause of cognitive impairment. PET scans detect molecular changes in the brain. Combined with other assessments, it can allow for an earlier and more accurate diagnosis.

The study enrolled more than 18,000 Medicare beneficiaries with a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia. Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause of impairment in 79.6% of these patients. The PET scan read as positive for only 55.3% of patients with MCI and 70.1% with dementia. PET scan results led to treatment changes with doctors, including changes in medication and counseling on daily living issues.


Diagnosis and Treatment

Meanwhile, researchers in Norway may have found a more effective way to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Most current treatments focus on inflammation, the peptide Amyloid-β and the protein Tau—accumulation of these in the brain are thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.

The Norway researchers believe the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease accumulate broken mitochondria. Too many of these stress brain cells and cause them to die. A treatment that stimulates the cells’ ability to self-clean broken mitochondria has proven effective in mice. Next, researchers plan to conduct clinical trials on humans.


Searching in Unusual Places

Researchers recently completed a clinical trial for Saracatinib, a drug developed for cancer therapy, as a possible treatment to reverse memory loss. Of the 160 people that participated in the study, the group that received the drug did not improve any more or less than the group that took a placebo. Despite this small study’s lack of efficacy, other studies are in the works that target brain cell inflammation, the relationship between insulin and brain health, and the heart health-brain health connection.

Absent effective medication, we may see a breakthrough in technology. The area of the brain which enables us to move around without getting lost is one of the first brain regions Alzheimer’s disease hits. Current cognitive tests can’t measure this navigation problem.

Researchers at the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, in England, in collaboration with Professor Neil Burgess at University College London, developed a test using virtual reality (VR) to test navigation. Testing the device on people both with and without MCI, researchers found the people without MCI scored better. They also found the test could also differentiate between low- and high-risk dementia. A similar study at the University of Kent had similar findings, according to Science Daily.

Another study out of the UK found VR therapy helped people with dementia recall old memories. The tool also reduced aggression. Researchers concluded the exposure to new stimulation—patients use a headset to explore one of five environments—helped jog memory.

More research is needed before we see any of these new tools and drugs as mainstream treatment. Even if they don’t hit the market in time to help today’s Alzheimer’s disease patients, they can potentially help millions in the future. Learn more about talking to your loved one about memory loss.