New York Times (November 8, 2010): For Edge on Alzheimer's, Testing Early Treatments

Publication Date: 
Mon, 11/08/2010

Much of the research on Alzheimer's next year will be about going back in time, trying to determine when and how the brain begins to deteriorate.

Scientists now know Alzheimer’s attacks the brain long before people exhibit memory loss or cognitive decline. But the specifics are crucial because so far, drug after drug has failed to effectively treat Alzheimer’s in people who already show symptoms. Many scientists now think the problem may be that the drugs were given too late, when, as Dr. John C. Morris, an Alzheimer’s expert at Washington University in St. Louis, puts it, “there’s a heck of a lot of brain cell damage and we’re trying to treat a very damaged brain.”

If drugs could be given sooner, tailored to specific biological changes, or biomarkers, in the brain, treatment, or even prevention, might be more successful.

“We’re trying to go earlier and earlier in the course of the disease,” said Neil Buckholtz, chief of the Dementias of Aging branch at the National Institute on Aging. “The idea is to locate how people move through these stages and what indications there are of each stage.”

Several research projects are expecting to make strides next year.

One involves the world’s largest family to experience Alzheimer's disease, an extended clan of about 5,000 people in Colombia, many of whom have inherited a genetic mutation that guarantees they will develop dementia, usually in their 40s. Except for its clear genetic cause and that it strikes people so young, the Colombian condition is virtually identical in its disease process to more common Alzheimer’s, which has unknown causes and afflicts millions of elderly people.