Beating the Deadline: How Close are We to Curing Alzheimer's Disease?
Exploring the Latest Research and Developments in the Fight Against Alzheimer's
Thursday afternoons were reserved for visiting Grandma Joan. Once a week, I’d turn the corner to a beaming smile, as she excitedly rocked back and forth in her wheelchair. But, this week was different. I turned the corner this time to an empty room. All that was left of Grandma there was her belongings.
My mother and I visited the care facility to collect her things. We opened drawers and carefully piled papers and decorations into cardboard boxes. We mourned her death while gripping each knick-knack, and reading the lines of to-do lists to capture one more glimpse of her thoughts. On one list, between artistic shorthand cursive, Grandma had messily scribbled “Alzheimer’s”.
Grandma Joan was experiencing the onset of Alzheimer’s when she passed. Though she was still capable of remembering faces, and was aware she was experiencing symptoms of dementia, she dipped in and out of lucidity, and struggled with short term memory loss. One of the final times I saw her, she let me know she could no longer tell whether she was dreaming or not. Life, at her end, was an endless stream of recognizable stimuli, some moments more surreal than others.
Her death was considered by my family a mercy. Grandma’s mind was her favorite tool, and the slow deterioration of it would have caused her unspeakable duress. She passed before her brain rendered the world frightening and unrecognizable, like so many others who suffer from the condition.
As I continued to sort through her belongings in the quiet dorm, a notable printed web page revealed itself. It was a copy of 10 Uplifting News Articles to Brighten Your Week. In the very last paragraph, which summarized a story of reversing age in mice, she circled Alzheimer’s a final time. The news had reported a breakthrough in research that could save Alzheimer’s patients in the future.
In grief, I wondered just how close Grandma was to being cured. If she had held on for just a bit longer, would she have been able to improve her cognitive abilities?
So, I set to finding the answer for a piece of comfort. For those that are experiencing Alzheimer’s, worried they may experience it as they age, or have a loved one who is affected, I hope this information can provide you a bit of comfort too.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects memory, mental abilities, and thinking. There are many other types of dementia that affect body function, and some individuals that experience the disease present symptoms from multiple types simultaneously. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is thought to be specifically caused by a buildup of plaque within the brain. This substance, made of tau and amyloid proteins, causes a decrease in ability for regions of the brain to communicate with each other. This process can take many years before symptoms appear. As the plaque increases, it can cause regions of the brain to shrink, most notably in the sections of the brain that are used for memory, speech, and vision.
What Causes Alzheimer’s Disease?
Currently, the causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia aren’t wholly certain. Researchers have identified a collection of genetic and environmental factors that may contribute to an increased risk, however. The disease seems to run in families, but the majority of the genetics linked to the disease are risk genes instead of deterministic genes, meaning that the hereditary factor likely doesn’t cause the disease but rather makes it easier for one’s lifestyle to result in the development of it.
From the research so far, there appears to be a link between overall health and the risk of Alzheimer’s development. As there is a correlation between individuals with cardiovascular disease and dementia, factors that damage the heart, like a history of smoking or alcoholism, a sedentary lifestyle, or poor diet may also increase one’s risk.
The disease was first described in 1906 and, since then, scientists have successfully discovered much about its causes and array of symptoms. By the 1990’s, treatment to slow the effects of the disease began to emerge. Considering the rate of medical advancement and increased attention in the last 30 years, it appears that the rate of breakthroughs in research are exponential, with new discoveries now appearing months and even weeks apart. Additionally, scientists are predicting that there will be a 50% increase of people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so funding is likely to continue increasing along with that.
How is Alzheimer’s Disease Currently Being Treated?
There isn’t yet a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, but a recent treatment, approved by the FDA in 2021, is showing promise in reducing the speed of cognitive decline. Aducanumab, which is a therapy that removes amyloid from the brain, helps individuals in the early stage of the disease hold on to memories and function independently for much longer than those without any treatment. Unfortunately, it does not prevent the brain from continuing to produce the protein, and it does not aid individuals in restoring what memories and cognitive abilities they have already lost before the beginning of treatment. For that reason, early detection is incredibly necessary for the treatment to be effective.
Aducanumab isn’t the only option for treatment. For those farther along in Alzheimer’s AChE inhibitors are often prescribed. These substances allow the brain to produce more acetylcholine, which aids brain cell communication. For those that have difficulty tolerating the side effects of that treatment, Memantine, which blocks calcium from moving into brain cells. Additionally, group therapy designed to stimulate memories and problem-solving skills seem to limit the negative behavioral effects of Alzheimer’s.
Fortunately, research efforts are ongoing. Over the course of writing this article, multiple breakthroughs have been made that have the potential to improve both prevention and treatment. One such study from the Salk Institute found that age-related cell deterioration in neurons, similar to the process that occurs in other cells, may contribute to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Notably, this cell deterioration is remarkably similar to what causes cancer. New information on the disease is being discovered on an almost monthly basis.
Additionally, some researchers are exploring the use of stem cells and other regenerative therapies that may repair previously damaged brain tissue. Though this mode of treatment is still theoretical, and studies have not yet been administered to humans, there’s hope that this type of treatment will aid patients in the future.
With an increased rate of research, funding, and public attention, cautious optimism is forming within the scientific and medical communities. But, leading researchers are hesitant to provide an estimate on when treatments will be successfully developed. Dr. Scott Small of Columbia University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center said it best, “In science [...] you never can be sure. The only way we’ll know we’re right is by developing drugs and testing the hypothesis in clinical trials in patients”.
So, how close exactly are we to finding a way to cure Alzheimer’s? According to the World Health Organization, if researchers are able to follow their detailed roadmap, Alzheimer’s may become livable by 2030. Of course, it’s difficult to predict the progress of medical research but it is incredibly likely that we’ll see feasible solutions within the next couple of decades.
Like cancer, we are more likely to make the disease survivable than to wholly cure it in the near future. But, considering the importance that this cure has in the public sphere, and the continued increased rate of funding and research studies, this author is optimistic.
The future for Alzheimer’s research is full of hope. Humanity is approaching a milestone of medical solutions.
To Grandma Joan: A gentle soul and lifelong learner. You inspire me to share knowledge and sow kindness.
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