Dementia in the News

In a year when news about Alzheimer's disease seems to whipsaw between encouraging and disheartening, a new discovery by an 84-year-old scientist has illuminated a new direction.

The scientist, Paul Greengard, who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on signaling in brain cells, still works in his Rockefellar University lab in New York City seven days a week, walking there from his apartment two blocks away, taking his aging Bernese mountain dog, Alpha.

When Henry McCance started at Greylock Partners in 1969, the venture capital industry had less than $100 million flowing into it each year, he estimates. Now, it's roughly a $20 billiion-a-year sector of the financial world that has backed companies whose products are, in many cases, staples of modern living.

Five years ago, McCance, now Greylock's chairman emeritus, started a nonprofit research foundation called the Cure Alzheimer's Fund.

The scene was a kind of science court. On trial was the question “Can anything - running on a treadmill, eating more spinach, learning Arabic - prevent Alzheimer's disease or delay its progression?”

To try to answer that question, the National Institutes of Health sponsored the court, appointing a jury of 15 medical scientists with no vested interests in Alzheimer’s research. They would hear the evidence and reach a judgment on what the data showed.

Many doctors already suspect there may be a link between surgery and the onset of Alzheimer's.

Previous studies have suggested that between 10 and 30 percent of elderly people who undergo surgery suffer memory problems afterwards, but it has not been established whether these are a short-term response to physical trauma, or the beginnings of dementia.

Cognitive problems, ranging from memory loss to delirium, have been found most commonly when elderly people have undergone heart surgery, but also following other operations.

Two of the most common and dreaded illnesses in America may share a connection, with new research suggesting that having insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes raises your risk of developing the brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's disease.

After adjusting for other risk factors, the Japanese study found that people with the highest levels of fasting insulin had nearly six times the odds of having plaque deposits between nerves in the brain, compared to people with the lowest levels of fasting insulin.

In 2003, a group of scientists and executives from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the drug and medical-imaging industries, universities and nonprofit groups joined in a project that experts say had no precedent: a collaborative effort to find the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer's disease in the human brain.

Researchers report that a spinal fluid test can be 100 percent accurate in identifying patients with significant memory loss who are on their way to developing Alzheimer's disease.

Although there has been increasing evidence of the value of this and other tests in finding signs of Alzheimer’s, the study, which will appear Tuesday in the Archives of Neurology, shows how accurate they can be. The new result is one of a number of remarkable recent findings about Alzheimer’s.

Five of the six members of the Memory Ensemble were gathered in a nondescript conference room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, ready to begin their weekly improvisational acting workshop.

“Where’s Irv? We need Irv,” one said.

“Oh, he’s always late,” said another. “He’s very dependable that way.”

Will Alzheimer's disease, a terrible degenerative brain disease with no treatments and no clear guidelines for diagnosis before its end stages, become like heart disease? Will there be early markers of risk, analogous to high cholesterol levels, that will predict who is likely to get it? And will there be drugs that actually prevent it?

A team of Toronto scientists is pushing Alzheimer's research in a radical new direction - testing whether electrodes implanted deep in patients' brains can jolt their memories into good working order.

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