The Obama administration last week committed $50 million to accelerate research on Alzheimer's disease. Scientists say recent breakthroughs in understanding the causes and progression of the brain-wasting illness give them new hope that an effective treatment or even a cure can be found.
Scientists working to unravel the mysteries of Alzheimer's disease are excited by two recent studies. Both provide important new insights on how the disease spreads through the brain.
Guy Eakin is vice president of the American Health Assistance Foundation, which helped to fund one of the breakthrough studies. He says the study found that the progression of Alzheimer's disease depends on the transmission of an abnormal brain protein known as tau.
"Within our brain, one cell can transfer this tau protein to another cell and then that next cell will become diseased and transfer the tau protein to the next cell down the line. And that actually begins to explain how we see Alzheimer's developing," added Eakin.
Eakin says not every research effort leads to a breakthrough, but the accumulated findings from many previous studies of Alzheimer's, using both animal and human subjects, have drawn a much clearer picture of how the disease devastates the brain.
"In Alzheimer's disease, the destruction of tissue occurs in kind of a spiraling fashion and gradually encompasses the motor skills as well as emotional areas of the brain and other sensory mechanisms of the brain and ultimately overwhelms the brain's capacity," added Eakin.
Another important Alzheimer's study by Dr. William Jagust and colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, finds that people whose daily routines include stimulating mental activities, such as reading, writing or solving puzzles, develop fewer of the amyloid plaque deposits in the brain that are the signature of Alzheimer's.
"What we found [is that] the more cognitively active they were, the less amyloid they had in the Brain," said Jagust.
And another recent study shows that those amyloid plaque deposits can start forming in younger adults and not just in the elderly, as researchers had previously believed.
Dr. Brian Appleby did not take part in that study, but treats dementia patients at Cleveland Clinic.
"We might be able to do something much earlier in life to prevent the process," said Appleby.
Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), believes Alzheimer's research is gaining momentum, but there is still a long ways to go before the disease is fully understood.
"We have a beginning of a molecular picture. I don't want to say that we have all the other pieces together," said Collins.
Some of those pieces may be found in the 50 to 80 drug compounds designed to treat Alzheimer's that are now undergoing trials. Scientists are hoping that at least a few of these drugs will help to slow or stop the disease in its tracks, so that a diagnosis of Alzheimer's is no longer a death sentence.