Scientists conducting aggressive research and trials hope to make Alzheimer's a distant memory

Five years ago, the Obama administration got serious with Alzheimer’s, a disease that according to the Alzheimer’s Association, affects more than 5.4 million Americans and is now the third (up from sixth) leading cause of death in the United States. On January 4, 2011, President Barack Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) that paved the way for the National Alzheimer’s project, designed by the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to devise plans for treatment, prevention, support, public education, and empowerment. The objective: eliminate Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.

Today those efforts look to be paying off.

Dementia And Stages

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that causes problems of memory, thinking, and behavior, making it difficult to navigate through life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Though increasing age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, it is not limited to old age alone. About five percent of affected individuals are between 40 years old and 50.

Current medication for Alzheimer’s address memory symptoms and cognitive changes. Cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine are two common classes of drugs used to improve cell-to-cell communication and reduce the severity of symptoms. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, and sleep medicines are also used to reduce the effects of the disease.

All told, about $1 billion is spent each year on medicines like Aricept, Razadyne, Exelon, and Namenda. These drugs are used primarily to ease symptoms of cognitive loss. In general, improvements are modest. Current medications for Alzheimer’s may slow mental decline for a limited time during the early stages of the disease, but do not stop the eventual downward spiral.

Western Medicine doesn’t have a cure or adequate treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, according to Dr. Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine proponent. Most treatment plans at best can only focus on adequate patient care to reduce the disease’s harmful effects and delay the onset of symptoms.

Looking For Gene Mutations Early

One of the most promising projects is the Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer’s Network (DIAN), funded by the National Institute on Aging, which focuses research on the role of gene mutation in Alzheimer’s. According to early results, DIAN participants who had the gene that guarantees onset of the disease, showed evidence of chemical changes in the brain, even before showing signs of any symptoms. This is a key finding that indicates brain chemistry changes as many as 10 years before the first detectable memory and cognitive impairment symptoms. What it suggests is that there could be a significant window of time to intervene with therapies that might halt the brain changes before they affect memory and day-to-day functioning.

The Alzheimer’s Association granted the DIAN study $4.2 million in research funds to carry out clinical drug trials to determine a pharmacological effect on the biological markers of Alzheimer’s.

In addition, the U.S. government in 2012 allocated $16 million toward the study of drug therapy. The five-year trial project has been studying critical information about memory decline and brain changes.

Meanwhile, the largest non-profit organization committed toward the elimination of Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association, is addressing early-onset Alzheimer’s with several clinical trials and research projects to discover the root causes of the disease.

CBD And Medical Marijuana Research Encouraging

Several studies evaluate the role of medical marijuana as well as cannabinoids (CBD) in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. A research study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease identified Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC as an inhibitor of beta-amyloid proteins, which play a key role in the progression of Alzheimer’s. According to the owner and founder of United Patients Group, John Malanca, “Medical marijuana has the potential to treat several illnesses. There are several clinical studies that point towards the benefit of THC in treating Alzheimer’s disease. If administered in acceptable therapeutic ranges, medical marijuana can offer beneficial effects to the patients.”

With the aid of education and awareness, this group hopes to brings its tagline “Be informed, be well” to life.

The National Institute on Aging provides detailed descriptions of various clinical trials, offering research that may lead to permanent solutions and a cure. The Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation as well has been researching significant proteins that can fuel therapy. Just last year, researchers at The Rockefeller University and Columbia University published a promising study in Nature Medicine that explains how scientists can now limit the production of beta-amyloid proteins. The overproduction of amyloid plaques containing aggregates of sticky beta-amyloid proteins is what kills brain cells and leads to symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

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Preventative Approach To Alzheimer’s

Several alternative medicines and natural products such as omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and natural plant-based products, including curcumin and ginkgo, have been shown to be beneficial. According to an article by Dr. Mercola, there are several alternative means that can be incorporated into one’s diet to help eliminate the effect of Alzheimer’s. Well-balanced meals, complete nutrition, exercise, and a supportive and caring environment are equally essential. The consumption of high levels of vitamin D, vitamin B12, and blueberries might also be natural ways to prevent Alzheimer’s, according to Mercola.

The Blood-Brain Connection

But possibly the best hope for finally conquering Alzheimer’s is in better understanding what causes it. While the  beta-amyloid proteins are known to kill brain cells in the end, new research is focusing on what permits the overproduction of these proteins. In a new study reported in Science Translation Medicine, scientists now believe Alzheimer’s begins with the weakening of the brain-blood barrier in the hippocampus; the part of the brain that plays a central role in memory, learning, and spatial orientation. A healthy blood-brain barrier keeps many bacterial pathogens that are present in the bloodstream out of the hippocampus. As people age, the blood-brain barrier wears down, and viruses, bacteria, and fungi that were previously contained within the bloodstream begin to enter the brain.

These findings  suggest at least two ways of attacking Alzheimer’s that had not been considered before. First, research can be carried out to find ways to kill the bacterial infections that trigger the plaque buildup. Second, ways can be sought to strengthen the aging blood-brain barrier so pathogens don’t get into the brain in the first place.

This could be a game changer.

Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.

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