How Close Are We to Finding a Cure for Alzheimer’s Disease?
How close are we to finding a cure for Alzheimers disease?
Many diseases that were once fatal no longer are due to breakthroughs in medications and vaccines. HIV, smallpox and polio are just a few modern examples. Because we’ve successfully cured–or at least learned how to properly treat–these illnesses, there’s hope for curing other diseases, like Alzheimer’s.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, it’s impossible to predict when we will finally have a cure. Alzheimer’s is difficult to understand and pin down. Medications have been slow to develop. But as researchers gain a better understanding of the disease and what it does to the brain, we can remain hopeful that a cure is out there.
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What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
In order to treat or cure a disease, doctors must fully understand exactly what causes the disease. While genetics, environmental and lifestyle factors all contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, on a cellular level, researchers point to certain types of plaques and proteins in the brain as possible causes of the disease.
When doctors and researchers have studied the brain of someone who died from Alzheimer’s, the collection of abnormal amounts of protein seem to be what disrupt and destroy healthy cells. These proteins are known as beta-amyloid.
Beta-amyloid proteins are a naturally occurring protein in the brain that can clump together between neurons, forming a plaque that disrupts the communication between neurons and their ability to function. Microglia cells are supposed to prevent this plaque build-up as their job is to clear away any unwanted substances from neurons. In someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the microglia fail to do their job.
The presence of beta-amyloid plaque is a bit of a “Which came first—the chicken or the egg?” conundrum for researchers. It’s still unclear if these clusters cause Alzheimer’s disease or if Alzheimer’s disease causes the plaque buildup. Regardless, beta-amyloid plaque has become known as a hallmark of the disease.
Tau proteins are also a naturally occurring protein in the brain. Tau is a vital part of the structure of a neuron, ensuring nutrients and molecules are able to travel through the cell. Chemical changes in the brain can cause tau to stick to one another in an abnormal way and get tangled. These are known as neurofibrillary tangles. These tangles interfere with neuron communication and have also become known to researchers as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
As cells in the brain are damaged by beta-amyloid plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, tissue is lost, and the brain begins to shrink. While some shrinking in the brain is normal with aging, it is not typically associated with losing large numbers of neurons. With Alzheimer’s disease, the shrinking is due to losing these essential neurons.
This understanding of beta-amyloid and tau proteins has largely directed the development of recent Alzheimer’s medications. While these aren’t cures, some of these medications and approaches show promise for slowing down the progression of the disease in those who are in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s.
FDA-approved and developing medications for Alzheimer’s disease
Aduhelm: This drug was approved by the FDA in 2021, though its approval is a bit controversial. It falls under the drug category of monoclonal antibodies, which mimic your body’s natural antibodies to invasive disease. Aduhelm works to remove amyloid plaque in the brain, but the drug’s high price tag has made it available only to a limited number of people.
Lecanemab: Another monoclonal antibody drug, lecanemab has shown promise in a study where it reduced cognitive decline by 27% in participants who had early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The drug is predicted to be FDA approved by 2023.
Tau aggregation inhibitors and tau vaccines: Researchers are working on medications that would prevent tau proteins from tangling and wreaking havoc on the brain, using a vaccine or aggregation inhibitor.
Leukine: Currently in the research phase, Leukine may help protect the brain from harmful proteins.
Saracatinib: This drug was originally developed for cancer, but recent studies in mice have shown its ability to restore memory. Researchers are now studying the drug in humans.
These are just a few of the drugs being tested for their effectiveness on Alzheimer’s disease. Because heart health has been strongly linked to brain health, research is also looking at medications that help with cholesterol, stroke and high blood pressure as being effective for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers are also looking at a possible link between estrogen and the brain, as one study showed that estrogen-based hormone therapy protected thinking and memory in women who were at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
While none of these medications or therapies are cures, they do provide hope that with enough time, research and understanding of the disease, a cure is possible.
The future of Alzheimer’s disease
As more and more Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (about 6 million), and more are expected to in the next decade, science and research as put a spotlight on Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In 2011, the U.S. put into law the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, which is the first national establishment to focus solely on Alzheimer’s research and support for those living with the disease.
In 2009, the Coalition Against Major Diseases was formed to support the development of new medications and treatments for diseases related to cognitive decline, specifically Alzheimer’s disease.
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s today, with the medications that continue to be developed and the national support behind dementia and Alzheimer’s research, you can rest assured that every effort is being made to find one.