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Alzheimer’s Disease Research

ASK DR. MINDY

MINDY KIM-MILLER, MD, PhD
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Question:

With more people living longer and developing Alzheimer’s Disease, what type of research is there on finding a cure?

–R Phillips, 67, Atlanta.

Answer:

There is a tremendous amount of ongoing research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) therapies. I will briefly describe some of the different strategies that researchers are using.

A large area of research focuses on preventing or reducing the production of beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two characteristic structures believed to be involved in the disease process. One approach is to interfere with the many steps in the formation of plaques and tangles. Many of these studies focus on the function of proteases (proteins that cut other proteins into smaller components) and enzyme modulators (proteins that affect the speed of chemical reactions) important in the production of the building block of plaques and tangles. Other studies look at factors that affect the brain’s metabolism of fats, such as HDL and apoE; changing the way the brain uses certain fats may slow the formation of plaques. Another approach is to find ways of increasing the clearance of abnormal proteins important in the production of plaques or tangles after they are produced.

There is a lot of research looking at factors that reduce the risk developing or rate of progression of AD. Some of these factors include things that one can take, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antioxidants, AMPAkinases (an enzyme that affects a receptor important in brain signaling), Ginkgo biloba (a supplement thought to improve memory), and the hormones, estrogen and progesterone. Other factors being studied pertain to individual characteristics, such as family history, genetics, past head injuries, educational level, and occupation. Researchers hope to find which factors increase the risk for getting AD, and how to modify those factors to decrease the likelihood of developing AD.

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Another area of research looks at immunizations against the disease or boosting the body’s immune system to fight it. Vaccines may stimulate the body to prevent the formation of or break down abnormal proteins that form neurofibrillary tangles or beta-amyloid plaques. Other research is looking at developing antibodies that can be given to people to help fight these abnormal proteins.

Yet another approach looks at how stem cells might be used to repair or replace damaged brain cells. Challenges of this approach include trying to figure out how to program stem cells to become many different types of brain cells, each with a different, pre-set pattern of connections. However, many advances have been made in cloning human cells and identifying genes important for developing certain kinds of brain cells.

With the vast amount of research on AD using multiple strategies, there is reason to be optimistic about a better treatment or possibly a cure for the disease.

Dr. Mindy Kim-Miller is a trained medical physician who provides useful, but general answers to questions provided by online visitors. While Dr. Mindy can not provide specific medical advice or services, we hope you find her responses useful in your personal education. All information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you suspect you have an illness or disease, or a health related condition of any kind, seek professional medical care with an appropriate health care professional immediately. Do not postpone or delay seeking treatment or disregard professional advice based upon the general answers provided by Dr. Mindy. Dr. Mindy’s advice is not intended to substitute for a visit to your personal physician or other qualified health provider. Any specific medical concerns or questions you may have should be directed to your personal physician or other qualified health provider.