Alzheimer’s: Will there ever be a cure? Part 2

Alzheimer’s. Only those with someone afflicted with the dreaded disease know how truly terrifying it is.

It robs the victim of his or her mind, and the family is left with a shell of the person they knew before.

As I told you last night, a world renowned researcher at the Einstein Institute told me in 1992 that we would have a preventative or cure within ten years. Sadly, 24 years later, neither is true.

Alzheimer’s struck my maternal grandmother in the 1980’s, somewhere between the age of 65 and 69. With no medication to slow the disease, she suffered and died as a result of the disease a long 14 years later. Many of the memories of our fun-loving, vibrant grandmother all but disappeared. Our fondest memories of her now live on in a photo album.

My mother, whom we lost a little more than a year ago, was active with a good mind until she developed diabetes at the age of 80. At 82 she started having memory issues, was diagnosed with vascular dementia and put on memory drugs. She died two years later of a stroke, thankfully still knowing her five children and 12 grandchildren.

And that’s where Dr. Thomas Vidic, an Elkhart neurologist and researcher, says we have been stuck for ten years. No new drugs. “We can’t talk cure or anything like that, but at least a treatment that makes things a little bit better.”

But he is confident that is about to change.

He just wrapped up the second phase of a national trial, called the NOBLE Study, by testing a drug now known as T-187. It’s a sister trial to the Swedish Lundbeck Study, which is already being analyzed for possible FDA approval.

The drugs work differently than those now on the market, and researchers are hopeful they could be game-changers. Vidic told me, “The NOBLE and Lundbeck studies that we’ve been involved with actually work on a different transmitter, so it works in a new way.”

Paula Abraham, who was diagnosed at the age of 60 with early-onset Alzheimer’s, just finished the NOBLE Study. Neither she nor Dr. Vidic knows whether she got the placebo or T-187, but she is feeling optimistic after one year. “I am very hopeful; I’m much more helpful than I was a year ago,” Paula says.

The NOBLE Study will now allow Paula and the 500-plus people nationwide who completed the second phase to get the drug to take over the next six months. Still, Dr. Vidic says it may take three years to get it on the market because, while their part of the trial is over, the FDA requires parallel studies before analysis. Adding, “Rarely on a condition as serious as Alzheimer’s they, if the data is really good, the FDA will say, this is good enough for us.”

Dr. Vidic says most patients suspected of having Alzheimer’s or dementia are given cognitive testing, a physical exam and have an MRI or CAT scan. But with his studies, they have added using PET scans along with either an MRI or CAT scan. He showed us how, by combining the two, you can clearly see invaginations and the difference between a normal brain and a brain with Alzheimer’s.

Brad Root, imaging manager at the Elkhart Clinic,showed us how the ventricles are enlarged in a patient with Alzheimer’s, but in a normal brain the ventricles would be much smaller.

Dr. Vidic says that by using both scans you have a better view of abnormalities.

“We do know that there is amyloid deposition in the brain,” he explains. “This is a protein in the brain that coagulates in the brain. We can then look at the amyloid in the brain, and by doing that we are sure of diagnosis.”

And while the PET scan gives doctors a better look, Dr. Vidic also uses a tool to better explain to patients what is happening to their mind. It shows them through 3-D imaging. “One of the hardest things for people to understand is what Alzheimer’s does to the brain. As a person with Alzheimer’s progression, we see that more and more of the brain is more shrinking, and these areas in the brain get bigger, and the process that occurs with Alzheimer’s in 5 to 15 years is a dramatic shrinking in the brain and a lot more areas without brain cells.”

Dr. Vidic is hoping that the drugs he has recently tested will prove to slow down the progression of amyloid and slow down cell death. His research and the research of others around the world have given us an understanding of Alzheimer’s disease better than ever before.

So here’s what we know:

We know that Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging.

We know that in people who live a healthy lifestyle, eat a healthy diet and exercise, their bodies and minds have higher brain function.

We know that 50 percent of people who live until 80 will develop some form of dementia, but we don’t know about those with early-onset dementia, like Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee basketball coach who died at 64.

“She had familial Alzheimer’s and developed Alzheimer’s at a very early age, meaning you have a 50/50 chance of passing it on,” Dr. Vidic explains. “So the question is, how are these people who are 100 years old and still doing well, how are they different?”

Figuring that out is what stands between us and finding a cure. But Vidic says progress for ending this insidious disease is being made, and he is waiting with bated breath to see the results of his latest studies that may finally shed more light on how to attack Alzheimer’s. “We’re looking at all these pieces, and each one hopefully will give us an idea. We are getting close to a new drug.”

It may already be sitting in a research lab somewhere, he adds.

What about the future? Future Alzheimer’s treatments may include a combination of medications, similar to how treatments for many cancers or HIV/AIDS include more than a single compound.

But there is also a need for more funding. While Alzheimer’s will be the defining disease for baby boomers, here is how the research funding compares to cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS, where deaths are declining as Alzheimer’s strikes an American every 66 seconds.

Cancer gets $5.5 billion a year for research. Heart disease gets $1.2 billion a year, while HIV/AIDS get $3 billion.

In comparison, Alzheimer’s gets just $566 million a year for research.

But the greatest cost is not financial. It’s personal for all of us who have had loved ones we’ve lost to a cruel disease that steals independence, dignity and our memories.

Dr. Vidic says there are two tests you should have if you suspect memory issues, because the symptoms from certain deficiencies can mimic dementia.

He says dementia can actually occur due to a lack of vitamin B. If you’re deficient, you can get shots.

You should also get your thyroid checked. That can also play a role in how your mind functions.

So, until there is a cure, what can those of us who fear the disease do to improve our odds?

Experts suggest eating a diet high in omega-3 fats, which includes foods like salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines. Add fruits and vegetables.

Stay active, exercise your mind and body. Get quality sleep, manage your stress and lead an active social life.

Alzheimer’s: Will there ever be a cure? Part 1

The Alzheimer’s Association has much more information about prevention

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