The state of Alzheimer’s research

Scientists are finding concrete evidence for causes of Alzheimer’s and other related changes to a person’s cognition. This new knowledge is largely thanks to recent technological advances that enable researchers to share, process and analyze huge amounts of data as well as the development of biological and imaging tests that allow a look inside a living brain, helping to detect the disease’s onset and progression.

An executive summary of these most recent advances come courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which “conducts and supports a balanced and varied program of research that investigates the biological, translational, clinical, behavioral, and societal aspects of Alzheimer’s disease.”

The research took place in 2011 and the first half of 2012. Advances have been made in the following key areas, adapted from the NIH.

Understanding the biology of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers are very interested in abnormal levels of amyloid and tau proteins, two hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. One study found that nearly half of the brains of people in their 80s and 90s had Alzheimer’s-related changes but remained cognitively intact. It’s still unknown why this is, but it’s quite intriguing.

Genetics and Alzheimer’s disease

Teams of researchers from across the world are looking at gene variants at play in the risk and progression of Alzheimer’s. One such gene (presenilin 1) helps regulate amyloid levels, possibly weakening or strengthening the ability of synapses to connect with other synapses — an important function of learning and memory.

Risk factors for cognitive decline

Scientists are finding that a person’s life history and overall health can influence disease risk. This is in addition to the best known risk factors for Alzheimer’s: age and genetics.

Targets and treatments

Preclinical research is currently underway for compounds and drugs that inhibit Alzheimer’s-releated cellular brain changes. Researchers are discovering that medications already approved for other conditions my possibly be applied to Alzheimer’s. In one study, the cancer drug paclitaxel stabilized tau levels in animals, and in another study an existing cancer treatment lowered amyloid levels in mice.

Detecting and diagnosing

Brain imaging has proven to be a valuable way for researchers to find early signs of Alzheimer’s-related brain changes. Imaging found two of these signs are reduced glucose uptake, a condition tied to diabetes, and structural changes like the thinning of the cerebral cortex.

Therapies’ role in clinical trials

The NIH currently supports a number of clinical trials that aim to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s and onset dementia. Among the treatments are amyloid-clearing medications, aerobic fitness and diabetes drugs.


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