Alzheimer's Research Making Leaps and Bounds
There is also a lot of work underway on the genetic front. For example, it's known that people who carry a gene that expresses a specific protein called "ApoE4" have a higher likelihood of developing the disease -- but researchers are still unsure why most people who get Alzheimer's disease haven't inherited the gene.
Some scientists are taking their research down to the molecular level, and looking at the cellular abnormalities that could lead to the disease. Researchers at the University of Virginia suggest that abnormal mitochondrial genes -- which are responsible for cells' converting food into usable energy -- may increase the damage caused by naturally occurring elements in the body called oxygen-free radicals. These free radicals, in turn, start a process that ends up creating beta amyloid plaque build-up in the brain.
The importance of this kind of research is that it opens up new avenues for possibly stopping the development of Alzheimer's. "Time will tell," says Morrison-Bogorad.
Another drug being tested, memantine, comes at Alzheimer's disease from a different angle, according to Thies. Memantine is currently used in some parts of the world to treat Parkinson's disease and dementia in the elderly, among other conditions. The drug inhibits the destruction of nerve cells. Results from a trial using this drug on Alzheimer's patients will also be presented at the upcoming World Alzheimer's Congress.
Currently, the only drugs approved for Alzheimer's disease work to help nerves transmit impulses in the brain. The class of drugs includes Cognex (tacrine), Aricept (donepezil), Exelon (rivastigmine), and one under consideration by the FDA called galantamine, the latest in the evolution of current therapy.
Thies says all these drugs only help treat symptoms of the disease, such as problems with thinking and remembering, in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. They only last for a short while, and they are not a cure, according to Thies.
However, Thies says there are current trials testing substances like vitamin E (an antioxidant, which prevents damage from free radicals), estrogen, and even the herb ginkgo biloba, to fight the progression of the disease. Morrison-Bogorad also notes the need for research into using anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen to fight Alzheimer's disease.