By Stephanie Steinbrecher:
A century has elapsed since German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer first identified the disease that now bears his name, and since then Alzheimer’s disease has affected millions of individuals worldwide. Despite awareness about Alzheimer’s, few advances have been made towards finding a cure. A promising recent study, however, has shown that the possibility of understanding this disease and finding a cure may be imminent.
For a few years, researchers have tried to pinpoint what exactly happens inside the brain that causes Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s disease, as defined by the Alzheimer’s Association, is a kind of dementia that causes memory, thinking, and behavioral problems, usually in individuals over the age of 65. The disease worsens as it progresses. Many studies have shown that the buildups of plaques in the brain, made up of what are called beta-amyloid proteins, occur in patients with Alzheimer’s. This occurs because their brains cannot clear the proteins, and thus the nerve cells cannot communicate with each other. This accumulation over time can damage brain cells that are vital to memory and thinking.
A new study by Dr. Gary Landreth, a professor of neurosciences and the director of the Alzheimer’s Research Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University, may have found a way to clear beta-amyloid proteins from the brain and perhaps treat Alzheimer’s. In March 2012, Dr. Landreth published his findings in the journal Science.
Dr. Landreth found that mice that had similar symptoms and plaque buildups as Alzheimer’s patients, when given a dose of the FDA-approved drug called bexarotene, began seeing favorable results within hours. Bexarotene usually is used to treat skin cancer in humans. The plaque buildups began to dissipate, and then a few days later, the mice regained some of the abilities and senses that they had lost, such as the ability to make nests. In 72 hours, 50 percent of the plaques were gone.
Though this study shows remarkable promise for the potential treatment of Alzheimer’s in the future, there are still some very pressing concerns. The dosages used in the mice need to be adjusted, according to Dr. Landreth, and the manner in which the medication is applied also needs to be improved. There is also the issue that this has only worked in mice that have similar buildups of plaque in their brains and similar symptoms; there is no way of knowing how such treatment options will work for humans with Alzheimer’s.
In an interview for NPR’s “Science Friday” with John Dankosky, Dr. Landreth stated, “We don’t know that this works in humans at all. So the first clinical test, which we will get underway in the next month or so, is to ascertain whether the human brain responds to this drug like the mice do. And until we ascertain that, we can’t go forward, and that’s a necessary prerequisite for any subsequent development.”
Now, 107 years after Alois Alzheimer identified the disease, it seems that researchers and doctors might be on the right track towards finding a cure. Alzheimer’s disease is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people around the world by 2050; if this is really the case, then the need to find a cure is more important than ever. Dr. Landreth’s study may end or provide a step on the quest to end this far-reaching disease.