Skip to content

    Feb. 25, 2016 -- Of the 244 potential Alzheimer's drugs tested in people over 10 years, only one of them earned FDA approval.

    Researcher Jeffrey Cummings, MD, ScD, published that finding in a 2014 paper. The lone approval was for memantine (Namenda), used to treat dementia linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

    Since the paper was published, the agency greenlit a second drug, Namzaric. It’s a combination of two other Alzheimer's meds already on the market, donepezil and memantine. Namzaric’s arrival means there are only five approved medications for the disease.

    But Cummings, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, and others in the field remain optimistic. Researchers are testing 107 potential Alzheimer’s drugs in people, he says.

    They include a number of “repurposed” drugs already on the market to treat conditions such as high blood pressure and ADHD. Most of the meds being studied aim to lessen Alzheimer's symptoms rather than attack the underlying disease process, which is an even greater challenge, Cummings says.

    Among new drugs in development, researchers are testing treatments that work on pieces of two proteins -- beta-amyloid and tau -- found in the brains of people with the disease. They are also trying drugs to treat inflammation. The goal for some of these treatments is to slow the disease from getting worse.

    The last 35 years of research have taught doctors that a number of things play roles in causing Alzheimer's, says Howard Fillit, MD, chief science officer and founding executive director of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. “There are many ways that (brain) cells die.”

    It’s unlikely that any single drug will be able to slow or reverse a disease as complex as this type of dementia, which affects more than 5 million Americans, Fillit and other experts say. They look to what's been accomplished with HIV -- no longer a death sentence, thanks to a cocktail of medications -- as a model for how to approach treating Alzheimer's disease.

    “We’re going to need combinations,” says James Hendrix, PhD, director of global science initiatives at the Alzheimer's Association.