Neuroscientists are shifting gears in their hunt to stop the spread of Alzheimer’s disease. They are now testing the possibility that therapies on patients who are only beginning to show signs of the disease will help them to stop the devastation before the brain is destroyed.

Taking an ambitious step, an international study was just announced that would keep track of an experimental drug that can stall the disease in people who appear to be healthy, but have a genetic link to predisposition of Alzheimer’s. If it works, it could show scientific evidence that Alzheimer’s can be prevented, or at least halted.

Another study will test a nasal spray that sends insulin directly to the brain of those with early memory problems. This is based on separate research that links diabetes to increased risk of Alzheimer’s.

“We are at an exceptional moment,” says Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. More important discoveries have been taking place in the area of Alzheimer’s in the last few months than in recent years, and the present governmental administration is pushing for a 2025 deadline that will require developing a mix of treatments to attack the different ways Alzheimer’s does damage to the brain, similar to the cocktail to treat the AIDs virus or high blood pressure.

It will require testing drugs before full-blown Alzheimer’s sets in, but experts fear it may be too late at that stage, since Alzheimer’s begins to do damage at least a decade before memory problems start to show. “Once the train leaves the station of degeneration, it might be too late to stop it,” says Dr. Reisa Sperling of Harvard Medical School. “We need to define the critical window for intervention.”

The first National Alzheimer’s Plan does not want to approach future therapy; they want to be able to provide better support for the loved ones who are dealing with the disease on a daily basis. “A lot more needs to be done and it needs to be done right now, because people with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones and caregivers need help right now,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in announcing the plan.

A new website has been set up:, that Sebelius called “A one-stop shop for families that offers easy-to-understand information about dementia and links to resources in their own communities.” Free training of doctors and other health professionals will be offered by the government to enable them to spot early warning signs.

A public awareness campaign will be launched this summer to inform people about Alzheimer’s and reduce the stigma that helps fuel late diagnosis and the isolation that so many affected families feel.

Currently 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s or related dementias. If there is no research breakthrough those numbers will jump to 16 million Americans by 2050.

There is no cure, says Sperling, and the five medications available today only temporarily ease some symptoms. In the last decade there have been at least 10 drugs that showed promise, but failed in the late stages of development.

Scientists still don’t know exactly the cause Alzheimer’s. The main suspects are tangles of a protein named “tau” that clogs dying brain cells, and a sticky gunk called beta-amyloid, which makes up the disease’s hallmark brain plaques. One theory is that the amyloid may kick off the disease while tau speeds up the brain destruction.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion



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