Dementia in the News

Carol Spence had been an accomplished artist all her life, first working in graphics, and then as a maker of handcrafted, miniature dolls, which she sold at craft shows and galleries.

Three years ago, without notice or explanation, she took exclusively to the canvas, creating work that little resembled her past work. Two-dimensional animals and people. Smiling fish, floating near butterflies. Frogs with a variety of facial expressions.

More recently, she lays these images against a backdrop of perfect, shaded squares.

Ten months ago, Peter Mittler stood before a global audience of Alzheimer’s disease researchers and advocates and decried the indignities that people with dementia undergo.

He knows the subject intimately: Mittler, an 86-year-old British psychologist, was diagnosed with mild Alzheimer’s in 2006.

“Everybody thinks that we are just a medical problem,” Mittler told his audience.

“People underestimate us.”

“They write us off.”

Even though vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia and the most frequent co-morbidity with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers still have no reliable way to detect and track it. To fill this gap, the National Institutes of Health has inaugurated a new consortium to identify and validate biomarkers that reflect vascular contributions to cognitive impairment and dementia (VCID).

For some people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, frequent, brisk walks may help to bolster physical abilities and slow memory loss, according to one of the first studies of physical activity as an experimental treatment for dementia.

But the study’s results, while encouraging, showed that improvements were modest and not universal, raising questions about just how and why exercise helps some people with dementia and not others.

The following script is from “The Alzheimer’s Laboratory,” which aired on Nov. 27, 2016, and was rebroadcast on Feb. 26, 2017. Lesley Stahl is the correspondent. Shari Finkelstein, producer. Nieves Zuberbuhler, associate producer.

Nobel-prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once wrote of a mythical town in the middle of the jungle whose residents suffer from a mysterious affliction that erases their memories. Today, in a region of Colombia called Antioquia, reality appears to be imitating fiction -- in a way that may answer questions for all of us.

Rambling and long-winded anecdotes could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research that suggests subtle changes in speech style occur years before the more serious mental decline takes hold.

The scientists behind the work said it may be possible to detect these changes and predict if someone is at risk more than a decade before meeting the threshold for an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Last summer, deep disappointment befell the Alzheimer disease (AD) community when study results showed that the widely heralded experimental drug LMTX had failed to help AD patients. In November, another promising drug, solanezumab, also dashed hopes. Because these drugs target either amyloid β (solanezumab) or tau (LMTX), proteins that aggregate into the plaques and tangles in brain tissue characteristic of AD, some have suggested that researchers are following the wrong path by attacking these proteins and that AD research is back to square one after decades of work.

The announcement came the day before Thanksgiving, but there was nothing in it to be thankful for: An experimental Alzheimer’s drug many thought would slow the disease’s steady cognitive decline had failed to make a significant difference in a massive trial of people with early signs of the illness.

Marty Reiswig took the news hard. “I was just sad,” he says. “I was really hopeful that it would be life-changing for us.”

A concussion today could increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life, but only if your genes already tip the odds toward dementia, according to a study published in the journal Brain on January 11, 2017.

To those outside the field of neuroscience, the process may have seemed a little ghoulish. Rudolph Tanzi and Robert Moir took autopsied brain tissue from patients who had died of Alzheimer’s disease and “homogenized” it, grinding up the tissue using a sterile, laboratory-grade mortar and pestle. “Not terribly elegant, but highly effective,” says Moir, assistant professor in neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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