Alzheimer’s disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, with an estimated 44 million living with the disease worldwide. This disorder causes cognitive, behavioral, and psychological challenges in a patient with symptoms ranging from dementia to uncontrollable muscle movement. Scientists and researchers have struggled with clinical trial failures, however there may be promising new advancements on the rise for this condition.
Depiction of a Brain Affected by Alzheimer’s
Contrary to common misconceptions, Alzheimer’s and advanced dementia are not a normal part of aging. UCSF highlights that there are clear differences between healthy versus unhealthy aging, stating “Normal age-related declines are subtle and mostly affect the speed of thinking and attentional control.” Memory impairment continues to be an age-related problem, however, in the beginning stages, it is difficult to differentiate regular aging from Alzheimer’s. The reality is that Alzheimer’s is difficult to diagnose and cure, due to destroyed neuron connections and degenerative brain cell loss in the temporal lobe. Current medical workups for diagnosis include tests for functional and cognitive skills, in addition to MRI/CT scans and invasive spinal taps. However, brain imaging alone cannot diagnose Alzheimer’s since in the early onset, the disease may not be recognized alongside the costly setback of scans and procedures. Typically, imaging is rather used to rule out other possible conditions.
Even though there have been setbacks to this field, scientists have recently made breakthroughs with using blood tests to diagnose Alzheimer’s. Previously the main focus in research was for blood tests that can measure abnormalities of amyloid, which is 1 of 2 proteins that build up and cause Alzheimer’s disease. However, scientists have switched focuses to the other protein, tau, testing for phospho-tau217 (p-tau217) through the blood since it is a blood-brain barrier. Through testing and looking for elevated levels of the protein in the blood, Dr. Oskar Hansson of Lund University explained that they can detect changes in the brain even 20 years before symptoms occur. Scientists have also found through multiple studies that the blood test has high levels of accuracy from 89% to 98%. This research indicates for promising future studies in the fight against this disease and diagnosis.
Prospective New Treatment
In addition to the blood tests, other progressive Alzheimer’s studies have risen recently with the FDA Priority review of an Alzheimer’s treatment named Aducanumab from the company Biogen. Previous studies in the drug have had varying success, since the drug experimentation was halted for a duration of time during the clinical phases. However, upon greater analysis in the third trial, the company decided to move forward in gaining approval from the FDA for the treatment. Biogen continues to state that their previous lack of success was due to insufficient dosage. If the FDA were to approve this drug it would be the first clinical treatment of its kind to reduce the decline of patients with the disease.
Aducanumab has shown to be effective as it is an antibody that binds to the amyloid protein, turning the immune system to “clear the plaques against themselves” (CommonHealth). As amyloid protein was broken down, the tau protein similarly preformed the same way in experimentation. In the third phase of the trial, results showed that patients who were on the drug had improvements among declining memory and skills. While it does not completely halt the degradation process, it does aim to slow it and allow patient’s the gift of time. For the scientific community, these breakthroughs come with great aspirations for the future with even more progress in treating Alzheimer’s.