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Is Alzheimer’s research really making progress?

Friday December 18, 2015 - Jennifer Prell
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Is Alzheimer’s research really making progress?
By Bill Lowe, President and CEO of Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services

When Alzheimer’s disease was first described in medical literature in 1906 by Dr. Alois Alzheimer, there was little the medical community could do to treat it. Brain research was limited by the tools of the time. Research techniques advanced throughout the twentieth century, but only in the last few decades have tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) allowed for the imaging of healthy brain activity. Researchers hope these developments, which have greatly added to our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, could also be the key to creating preventative treatments.


The need for the preventative therapy for Alzheimer’s has never been so urgent. In the United States alone, the Alzheimer’s Association predicts a 40% increase in the incidence of the disease in the coming decade. In Chicago, where Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services (CMSS) has been serving older adults for more than a century, the number of residents over age 85 is predicted to triple by 2040, making Alzheimer’s and dementia treatments a pressing issue for our city.


“We provide many levels of care for people in all stages of Alzheimer’s disease at Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services,” said Tricia Mullin, CMSS Director of Community Relations.  “We see the impact of Alzheimer’s every day, both on the individuals who experience it and on their loved ones and caregivers. Any significant advance in treatment or prevention could transform the daily lives of an enormous number of people in our community and in our city.”


While those with Alzheimer’s have access to medications that were not available even 20 years ago, these treatments still leave much to be desired. 


“The currently available Alzheimer’s disease medications are all symptomatic, meaning they lessen symptoms such as memory loss and confusion,” explains Steve Satek, president of Great Lakes Clinical Trials, an organization that recently hosted a talk at CMSS about research advancements. “Unfortunately, they don’t treat it very well; they can temporarily stop decline for six months to a few years in about half the patients who take them, but then decline comes back.” But, according to Satek, promising new research aims to target the source of the disease rather than its symptoms.


“Memory loss is a symptom of the end stage of Alzheimer’s disease, with the beginning stages marked by the formation of plaques and tangles in the brain,” Satek explains.


Long before memory loss becomes pronounced in those with Alzheimer’s disease, brain function is affected on the cellular level by these plaques and tangles. Recent advances in a specific type of brain imaging, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, allows researchers to identify these formations in the brain.


Plaques are formed by clumps of the protein beta-amyloid, which hinder brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other. Tangles are formed by a protein called tau. In a healthy brain, tau helps transport nutrients through brain cells, but in Alzheimer’s disease, the fibers of these proteins twist, causing cells to die. New efforts to prevent, slow down or halt the disease target these plaques and tangles before significant memory loss takes hold.


The progress of current research requires the participation of both healthy older adults and those experiencing memory loss. In order to advance their work, researchers require a healthy “standard” by which to measure changes in the brain and to confirm whether a preventive medication is effective. The recent presentation hosted at CMSS from Great Lakes Clinical Trials, a leader in Alzheimer’s prevention research, was an effort to raise awareness about current developments in Alzheimer’s research and to encourage individuals in the CMSS community to consider participating.


“Here at CMSS, we want to help stop memory loss before it begins,” Mullin explained. CMSS has a 117 year heritage of preventive care for seniors, so hosting presentations from organizations such as Great Lakes Clinical Trials gives us an opportunity to educate our community about important research advancements, and to encourage clinical trial participation when appropriate.”


The public can access information about the latest research and clinical trials online by visiting TrialMatch®. This free, user-friendly site created by the Alzheimer’s Association research center helps patients and caregivers find clinical studies relevant to them. The National Institute of Health’s also lists ongoing trials, and includes information on both recruitment and results.


Great Lakes Clinical Trials is currently conducting four memory studies and is recruiting healthy older adults, those beginning to experience mild cognitive impairment, and those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Another preventative study is scheduled to begin in January. Building awareness of studies like these and increasing enrollment is critical if research is to accelerate and yield effective treatments.


“We are trying to stop the disease before it takes hold,” Satek says. “I believe this can happen in the next five to seven years, but one thing we know for certain is that new medications to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease cannot be developed without the participation in research from our senior community.”


CMSS’ Mullin agrees: “By taking part in clinical research, older adults can not only help themselves, but also be a part of improving people’s lives around the world. It’s important for older adults to know that, and we’re proud to do our part to spread the word.” 


Bill Lowe is the President of Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services, the largest network of senior services on Chicago's north side.

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