Closing in on Effective Alzheimer’s Treatments
Four million people are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease today, and 12 million are expected to have it by 2030. Though some symptoms can be eased to make life better for its victims, the debilitating disease is currently untreatable. But Dr. Roger Rosenberg, professor of neurology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center, believes that remedies are now in sight.
"Alzheimer's disease is a neurological disease that produces major changes in the brain, with the storage of very toxic proteins resulting in dementia," explains Rosenberg. As we age, these proteins — called amyloids — accumulate in the brain's nerve cells, creating a sticky plaque that inhibits cell function and eventually kills the cells. As the plaque builds, Alzheimer's patients gradually lose their memory, which is the main feature of the disease. But in advanced stages it also erodes personality, judgment, powers of speech and the ability to perform the routine functions of everyday life. Rosenberg's current research is centered on developing a gene vaccine that would stimulate the immune system to fight off the amyloid proteins and reduce their levels in the brain.
Today, 50 percent of people 85 years or older have some stage of Alzheimer's disease; it is the fourth-leading cause of death. In Texas alone, an estimated 250,000 people are affected by the disease — and Rosenberg believes that number will double in the next 20 years. Research at the ADC in Dallas, one of 32 such centers funded by the National Institute on Aging, focuses on the diagnosis, intervention, care and cure of Alzeheimer's, with aging seen as the chief culprit; finding ways to slow the aging process thus becomes crucial in fighting the disease.
"The major risk for Alzheimer's disease is aging," Rosenberg confirms. "If the brain did not age, we would not have Alzheimer's disease." Genetics also contributes to one's risk of getting the disease, as do high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol, diabetes, reduced thyroid function and a sedentary lifestyle. "If we can and do treat these other issues, we can slow down the rate of Alzheimer's disease," he says.
With the recent mapping of the human genome, Dr. Rosenberg has grown more optimistic. Though researchers have the daunting task of finding about 20 mutant genes out of the 25,000 genes in the human body, according to Rosenberg, "We are beginning to identify the genes for aging and their alterations that cause Alzheimer's disease." And once those have been pinpointed they can be treated with drugs. "So I would be very optimistic that we will find effective therapy for Alzheimer's disease, despite the great complexity that the brain poses for us."