New treatments that may slow the progression of Alzheimer's dementia are currently being examined.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive brain disorder that affects 5 million Americans. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with a death toll of approximately 500,000.
This leading type of dementia is characterized by damaged and destroyed brain cells, leading to loss of memory and changes in other brain functions. It is a fatal disease, as brain cells eventually deteriorate and die.
Alzheimer’s is not only harrowing for the diseased, but it also puts a burden on the families of affected individuals. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 15.5 million families and friends provided 17.7 billion hours of unpaid care to dementia sufferers in 2013, and such care has been valued at $220.2 billion.
In addition to financial burdens, caregivers of dementia patients find that caring for their loved ones can be physically and mentally draining. Some of this burden has led to depression in one-third of caregivers.
Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are a few treatments that work to conceal its symptoms. These include cholinesterase inhibitors and an N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist.
Donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine, and tacrine are all cholinesterase inhibitors. They work by slowing down acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme that breaks down a crucial neurotransmitter in the brain.
The only approved NMDA receptor antagonist is memantine, which works by regulating the activity in the neurotransmitter glutamate. This neurotransmitter plays an important role in learning and memory; however, too much glutamate in the brain, which is released by damaged cells, can lead to overexposure to calcium. This supplement can speed up cell damage, which memantine prevents by partially blocking NMDA receptors.
Since there is now better understanding on how the disease process works, neuroscientists are looking into potential therapies that may treat the underlying disease and stop or delay cell damage. Targeting certain disease-producing components can slow the progress of this type of dementia, and potential targets for drugs include:
Beta-amyloid: Beta-amyloid is the main component in the formation of plaques, which are hallmarks of the disease’s defect. Neuroscientists are developing drugs targeting every point in beta-amyloid processing.
Tau protein: The tau protein is the main component of tangles, another brain abnormality. Tangles destroy a vital cell transport system, so neuroscientists are currently researching ways to prevent them.
Inflammation: Another significant abnormality in Alzheimer’s disease is inflammation. Researchers are currently working to better understand the specific traits of inflammation in the brain, which may point to the development of anti-inflammatory treatments.
Insulin resistance: The processing of insulin in brain cells may also contribute to the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are now discovering the role of insulin in the brain, as well as how cells in the brain use sugar for energy.
While these new developments are important steps towards getting a better handle on this widespread disease, some barriers to clinical research on new treatments include a lack of willing participants and appropriate funding. However, the Alzheimer’s Association currently funds Alzheimer’s treatment research and advocates for additional research funds.