Over one hundred years ago, Auguste D. was the first person to be diagnosed with what we now know as Alzheimer’s disease. A German physician, Dr. Alois Alzheimer, studied Auguste’s brain upon her death and found abnormal deposits around the nerve cells. In 1910, Alzheimer’s colleague, Emil Kraepelin, officially named the Alzheimer’s findings after him in his book, Psychiatrie.
Fast forward about 65 years; in 1976, Alzheimer’s disease is officially identified as the most common cause of dementia by a neurologist named Robert Katzman. Just a few years later, in 1980, the Alzheimer’s Association was founded after the National Institute on Aging saw the need for a nonprofit organization to encourage federal efforts on Alzheimer’s disease.
Since the 1990s, treatments have begun to emerge out of all the Alzheimer’s disease research from the prior 30 years or so. The current treatments for Alzheimer’s work by improving symptoms of memory loss and problems with thinking and reasoning, albeit only temporarily. These treatments are not a cure; there is no way yet to stop or prevent Alzheimer’s.
Currently there are five FDA approved Alzheimer’s drugs that help with the memory loss and cognitive problems associated with the disease. Researchers believe that future treatments will involve a combination of medications aimed at several targets, similar to the current treatments for AIDS and many cancers.
Thanks to the advances in Alzheimer’s disease research over the past 30 years, researchers now have a good understanding of the differences between healthy brain function and the indicators of Alzheimer’s. These current studies include investigating:
- Targeting the protein beta-amyloid (plaques), long considered a sign of Alzheimer’s, through immunization strategies and experimental drugs to reduce the amount of beta-amyloid formed in the brain.
- Investigating strategies to keep tau protein molecules from collapsing and twisting into microscopic fibers called tangles. These tangles are another key brain abnormality among Alzheimer’s patients.
- Reducing inflammation Alzheimer’s causes in cells in the brain.
- Exploring the role insulin plays in the brain. Researcher are looking into how brain cells use sugar and produce energy to reveal strategies that could support cell function to ward off Alzheimer’s-related changes.
On top of these strategies, this past summer at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, results were presented from a two-year clinical trial in Finland which was known as the FINGER study- the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability. The study looked at 1,260 adults aged 60 to 77 who were at risk for developing Alzheimer’s to see how physical activity, good nutrition, social interaction and cognitive training affected overall cognitive performance. The results were positive, showing that it is possible to prevent cognitive decline through a series of different interventions and methods among those older individuals at risk.
More studies are needed and will continue to be conducted. In 2011, President Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) into law, which requires that an annually updated national plan will be submitted to Congress on how to overcome Alzheimer’s, as well as annual evaluations of all federally funded efforts in Alzheimer’s disease research and their outcomes.