Alzheimer's Research Making Leaps and Bounds
That may be the past and present of Alzheimer's disease, but it is not necessarily the future. Research in the pipeline is cutting away at the disease from various angles.
"There are so many bright lights now compared to 25 years ago," says Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, PhD. Back then, Alzheimer's was often thought to be an inevitable, normal part of aging. Morrison-Bogorad, the associate director of the National Institute on Aging's Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging program, agrees that the possible growth of Alzheimer's disease could be phenomenal in the next decades.
But, like Thies, she's optimistic. "The way research is going, I think we'll have a much better handle on Alzheimer's disease long before 2050," Morrison-Bogorad tells WebMD.
Thies tells WebMD the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are falling into place on a daily basis. "... But there's still some holes in there about what the initial [problem is] ... that starts the disease," and, he says, we still don't understand the genetics of it.
Morrison-Bogorad says Alzheimer's disease is believed to be spurred by a complex mixture of things that could contribute to the risk of getting the disease -- such as age, genetics, head injuries, high levels of cholesterol in the blood, or heart disease. "It's random luck of the draw," she says.
It's probable that both an environmental and a genetic set of factors determine whether a person gets the disease because two different types of brain abnormalities are characteristics of Alzheimer's. Researchers are unsure if the disease causes these abnormalities, or if the abnormalities cause the disease.
There are two medications in trials now that try to reduce one of these abnormalities -- the plaque build-up in the brain of a protein called beta amyloid.
One drug inhibits an enzyme that's a key step in the formation of beta amyloid. "It's like a cholesterol-lowering" drug, according to Thies. "The other trial is the vaccine trial, where a purified beta-amyloid is given, and its been shown in animals ... that you can decrease the amyloid burden on the brain by giving this vaccination," says Thies.