More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, and that number could swell to more than 7 million by 2025, according to estimates from the Alzheimer's Association.
It's the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., so it’s not surprising the race is on to find a cure for the debilitating brain disorder that robs memory and thinking skills — and turns loved ones into near-strangers.
In trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, one major focus in recent years has been on the “amyloid hypothesis,” which uses drugs designed to attack clumps of brain plaques (also known as beta-amyloid plaques) that are strongly implicated in the disease patterns. So far, however, these medications have fallen short, leading some to call for moving on to other more attainable targets.
However, Lon Schneider, M.D., an Alzheimer’s researcher disagrees. As professor of psychiatry, neurology and gerontology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, he believes that while stopping plaques may not prove to be the entire answer, it may still be part of the puzzle.
Alzheimer’s and beta-amyloid plaques
In trying to understand the amyloid hypothesis, it’s important to understand what the beta-amyloid is.
The beta-amyloid is a small piece of a larger protein known as the amyloid precursor protein that extends inside and outside human brain cells. When it’s activated in a normal healthy brain, the protein is cut into smaller sections. One of these smaller sections includes sticky beta-amyloid proteins that may accumulate into small clusters. These clusters can then progress into the thick plaques themselves, which are distinguishing features of diseased brain cells in an Alzheimer’s patient.
While medications designed to attack the beta-amyloid plaques haven’t been as successful as some had hoped, Schneider believes researchers could be on to something.
"Do not give up yet on the beta-amyloid hypothesis," he says.
Why? The formation of brain plaques is a complicated process and perhaps what is needed, Schneider says, is to intervene earlier in order to stop initial formation of these progressive plaques.
Fortunately, researchers are already working on just that. Experts are trying to find a way to attack the accumulation process earlier. "There are other ways of targeting [brain plaques] along that cascade," Schneider says. Other approaches, which are currently being studied, may also help arrest the disease, he adds.
Other possible new treatments for Alzheimer’s
As experts continue to study the brain plaques as a possible solution to halting Alzheimer’s disease, there are other possible treatments researchers are currently studying.
- A vaccine: A future Alzheimer’s vaccine is one possibility. "This involves injecting synthetic forms of amyloid beta protein so the body develops an immune response," Schneider says. That chemical reaction involves production of antibodies (and other proteins) that may keep the beta-amyloid from accumulating.
- Tau molecules: Scientists are also focused on tau, another type of protein. They know it normally functions to help maintain structure and function in nerve cells, but there is also a modified version of the tau protein that tends to accumulate into the toxic tangles found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. They hope to target these tau molecules as part of a potential Alzheimer’s treatment.
- Insulin: Researchers are investigating how the brain processes the hormone insulin, which might be linked with Alzheimer’s and other cellular inflammation connected with the disease.
Take the Next Steps
While researchers work steadily toward new procedures and medications for this heartbreaking disease, you can still take some matters into your own hands.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet that’s low in fat and rich in fruits and vegetables. According to the Alzheimer's Association, what's good for your heart also tends to be good for your brain. Your diet should also include hyper-nutritious fatty fish, such as salmon or tuna, for its brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids.
- Whether you’re caring for a person with Alzheimer’s or have Alzheimer’s yourself, stay abreast of clinical trials. The Alzheimer's Association maintains Trial Match, a service that finds current and free clinical studies for patients, caregivers, physicians and volunteers.
- If you’re a caregiver of an individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, seek constructive family support as well as community support groups. It’s important to take good care of yourself — both emotionally, mentally and physically — during this tumultuous and distressing process.