An estimated 5.8 million people aged 65 and over in the US have Alzheimer’s disease in the year 2020. People with Alzheimer’s disease experience memory loss and confusion as their main symptoms. Patients with Alzheimer’s also frequently have difficulty concentrating, display aggressive behavior, and have irritable dispositions. These hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease can lead to anger, apathy, and loneliness, but recent breakthroughs in treating Alzheimer’s disease offer hope and may alleviate some of these problems.

Improved Alzheimer’s Disease Testing

Early detection of Alzheimer’s disease can help individuals take preventative action to slow cognitive decline and the worsening of symptoms. Fortunately, a breakthrough blood test could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease decades before its onset.

This new test uses a protein called p-tau217 to discern Alzheimer’s disease from other neurodegenerative disorders. The new blood test comes from Michael Weiner and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco who orchestrated the largest Alzheimer’s disease study in the United States and Canada.

According to these researchers, the ability to diagnose the disease with a blood test will accelerate our ability to find new treatments and ultimately to prevent the disease. It might help doctors to diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease decades before the onset of symptoms. With an early diagnosis, patients could engage in routines that might diminish the severity of their illness.

Some examples of habits patients could take decades before the disease takes hold include engaging in exercise, monitoring their blood pressure, not smoking, and partaking in intellectually stimulating activities.

Activating an Enzyme in the Brain to Prevent Dementia

Researchers who are brothers from Macquarie University in Australia made a groundbreaking discovery that allowed them to treat mice with Alzheimer’s dementia and reverse the effects of memory loss. Their treatment uses a naturally-occurring enzyme in the brain called p38gamma. When activated, the enzyme prevents toxicity associated with memory loss.

Not only could this therapy treat Alzheimer’s disease, but it could also help with other dementia-related diseases like fronto-temporal dementia, which affects people in their 40s and 50s.

The brothers who did this research, Lars and Arne Ittner, have studied dementia treatments for more than 10 years. Their discovery occurred when Arne found that a gene therapy impacted a protective enzyme in the brain that had a profound impact on memory in advanced dementia.

The incidence of Alzheimer’s is increasing worldwide with the aging global population, leading to negative health outcomes from this mental affliction. The brother researchers found that not only did their new therapy halt memory loss but it completely reversed the memory loss that was already present.

“We were completely surprised. They actually recovered their memory function and their ability to learn returned. So, two months after we treated the mice at very old ages, these mice suddenly behaved like their normal siblings. We were really stoked. There is no comparable therapy out there and no other gene therapy either,” said Professor Ittner in a press release.

The idea of the two scientists was to refurbish the enzymatic memory activity lost with Alzheimer’s dementia and make it more efficient. They showed that activating p38gamma with gene therapy can modify a protein so that it prevents development of symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, they showed that p38gamma protective effects could be used to improve memory in Alzheimer’s disease in stages of advanced cognitive decline.

The next step will be to find out whether the effects of p38gamma translate to humans, so we need to conduct clinical trials. This next phase entails an additional level of complexity, cost, and time to completion.

The First Drug For Alzheimer’s Fast-Tracked for Approval

The first drug that could stop Alzheimer’s dead in its tracks has been fast-tracked for approval. Experts say this could be the most significant breakthrough yet in the fight against this ailment.

US watchdogs gave the treatment a “priority review,” meaning it could be prescribed within six months, which gives hope to individuals who suffer from the affliction. Clinical trials indicate that patients given aducanumab showed significant improvements in their language skills and abilities to keep track of time and place, along with a slower trajectory of memory loss. This comes in the face of current medicines prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease that only mask the symptoms.

The new treatment option works by untangling clumps of plaque in the brain, and it would be the first treatment to halt progression of the disease, according to what clinical trials suggested. Experts said the new drug could help those with early indications of dementia, meaning that the disease could be halted or slowed before the patients become incapacitated. The review of the drug will take six months to determine whether the drug is safe and effective. If it passes the trials, it could be licensed first in the US before watchdogs from other regions of the world consider it.

Manufacturers Biogen and Eisai halted trials of the drug last year, which suggested the treatment would not be beneficial to Alzheimer’s patients. Five months later, though, Biogen performed a new analysis with a larger amount of data that became available after the trials ended. The new analyses found that the drugs do work, in fact, so long as they are given early enough in the progression of the disease.

The drug is the first that the FDA will review in 17 years for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. If successful, the drug will be the first designed to halt the progression of the disease to be approved by regulators. Also noteworthy, the FDA only accepts drugs for priority review if they could offer major advancements in the treatment of a disease where none previously existed.

Anti-Aging Supplements

Research using animal models such as rodents suggests that anti-aging supplements like nicotinamide mononucleotide (NMN) could mitigate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. In such studies, mouse models with Alzheimer’s disease were given NMN supplementation, which decreased the presence of plaques in their brains and improved their performance on tests measuring cognitive function.

NMN raises cellular levels of a molecule called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), an essential molecule for energy production and maintenance of DNA integrity. Declining NAD+ levels with age have been linked to the onset of age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.

To determine whether the results from rodent studies translate to humans with Alzheimer’s disease, clinical trials must be completed. Currently, clinical trials underway looking at the effects of NMN supplementation on people examine conditions related to aging and metabolic disorders. Perhaps future research will reveal that anti-aging supplements like NMN can help with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

How to Manage Alzheimer’s Disease

While the breakthroughs listed bode well for the future of Alzheimer’s disease research, it’s quite important to continue with measures to manage symptoms of this ailment. This includes maintaining realistic expectations about treatment options, seeking out support systems, and creating a safe and stable environment while using assistive technology.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers online support groups for caregivers and individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America offers educational material and online events to help caregivers facilitate meaningful living for both the person providing care and the individual living with Alzheimer’s disease. 

The ALZ Forum gives educational papers on Alzheimer’s disease as well as ways to connect with professionals for treatment.