A Step Towards a Cure for Alzheimer's Disease

A major breakthrough in research on Alzheimer’s disease has opened the door to developing successful treatment and a possible vaccine to prevent the awful, life-destroying illness. A team of researchers from Université Laval, CHU de Québec, and pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) have discovered a way to stimulate the brain's natural defence mechanisms in people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's Disease(127132)
Credit: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/magazine/issues/fall10/articles/fall10pg20-21.html

What is Alzheimer's Disease?

First discussed in 1906 by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. Usually diagnosed in elderly people, Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative disease of the brain, progressively getting worse and eventually leading to death. It is predicted that by 2050, one in 85 people will be affected by Alzheimer’s.

Symptoms for Alzheimer’s vary in each individual sufferer, but there are some common indicators of the disease.

During the early onset of the disease, Alzheimer’s is often mistaken as simply the effects of ‘old age’, with the most common early symptom being that the sufferer has difficulty remembering recent events, conversations or activities. As the disease advances, other symptoms that can arise include confusion, aggression, mood swings, language difficulties, and long-term memory loss. Motor control and bodily functions also decline, leading to death.

To confirm Alzheimer’s disease as a diagnosis, sufferers usually have to complete tests based upon evaluating the behaviour and thinking abilities, as well as have a brain scan. It is unknown how long it takes or why Alzheimer’s disease develops, and can go undiagnosed for years, with an unknown amount of time passing before symptoms become fully apparent. On average, the life expectancy of Alzheimer victims is roughly seven years after diagnosis, with fewer than three percent of sufferers living longer than fourteen years after diagnosis.

Because Alzheimer’s disease is not well understood, there is currently no cure, which current treatments only helping to alleviate symptoms, rather than prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s. These treatments vary widely, from the pharmaceutical to the psychological.  Mental stimulation and meditation, exercise, and a balanced diet have also been suggested as ways to delay cognitive symptoms associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s, but there has been no conclusive evidence supporting it having an effect. Furthermore, because Alzheimer’s is degenerative, there is a heavy reliance on carers for assistance. Usually this role falls on to a family member or friend of the victim, and can be highly stressful, both physically, emotionally and financially.

 There is also the financial burden Alzheimer’s disease has on society to consider. It is suggested that because of our increase in the ageing population, Alzheimer’s disease may be among the most costly diseases for society in Europe and the United States. Alzheimer’s costs are associated with the increase in demand of medical facilities such as nursing homes and aged care facilities, as well as the need for extra carers, nurses and in-home day care. There are also the indirect costs associated with a loss of productivity and contribution of both the Alzheimer’s sufferer and their carer. Because carers are usually family members, they are often forced to stop working, which loses their financial income and affects the wider economic benefits for society. Studies show that Alzheimer’s disease may cost the Unit States up to 100 billion dollars every year.

 However, a new breakthrough in research may hold the key to eliminating this disease.

A Possible Cure and Vaccine for Alzheimer's?

One of the main chemical characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease is the production of amyloid beta, a toxic molecule produced in the brain. Our body’s nervous system defenders, called microglial cells, aren’t able to eliminate this toxic substance, which forms deposits in the brain of Alzheimer sufferers called senile plaques.

 However, studies and tests led by Dr. Serge Rivest, professor at Université Laval's Faculty of Medicine and researcher at the CHU de Québec research centre have discovered that a molecule known as MPL (monophosphoryl lipid A), stimulates the brain’s immune cells, which could potentially fight back against the senile plague deposits.

 Published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the study showed that over a twelve week period, mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms were given a weekly injection of MPL, which eliminated up to 80% of senile plaque deposits in their brains. Furthermore, tests were conducted on the mice’s ability to learn new tasks, and showed significant improvement in cognitive function over the same period.

 This new discovery has two potential outcomes. One, that MPL could be used to slow the progression of Alzheimer suffers through regular injections, and two, it could be incorporated into a potential vaccine against the disease by stimulating the creation and production of antibodies against amyloid beta. This could stimulate a natural immunity in Alzheimer victims, as well as be used as a preventative measure to people who are at risk of developing the disease. This new discovery definitely opens the door a little bit wider in eventually eliminating this awful, degenerative disease.

Facts about Alzheimer's Disease

Looking at the Statistics

  • Every 68 seconds someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's. Currently there are roughly 5.4 million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Unless a cure is discovered, that number could rise as high as 15 million by 2050.
  • worldwide, Alzheimer's victims could reach nearly 66 million by 2030, and could go higher than 115 million by 2050.
  • In America, Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in all age groups . For those 65 and older, it is the fifth-leading cause of death.
  • Between 2000 and 2008, deaths attributed to Alzheimer's disease increased 66% in the United States.
  • Globally, a person is diagnosed with some form of dementia every four seconds.