Alzheimer's-The Tangled Brain

         

POSTED 7 SEP 2000

   

1. The mind killer; 2. The Dr. prescribes; 3. Better diagnosis; 4. Real cures? 5. Is it preventable?1. The mind killer2. Treatments-now3. Future treatments4. Diagnosis5. Common sense

 

 

 

 

Q: What does Alzheimer's disease do?A:It destroys nerve cells critical to memory, behavior and judgment.

   

The stem of a discovery
After years of deliberation, the National Institutes of Health has approved federal funding for research with "do-everything" stem cells derived from human embryos. During human development, these utility players effortlessly transform themselves into any cell in the body -- skin cells, blood cells, even brain cells.

photo of an old person's hands
Courtesy Still Pictures Branch, National Archives and Records Administration

And while opponents of abortion say human embryo research is tantamount to murder, stem cells could relieve a lot of human suffering. If, for example, they could be taught to transform themselves into brain cells, they might be used to treat brain-killing diseases like Parkinson's, a movement disorder, and Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia among the elderly.

Literally, "dementia" means to "remove or reduce the mind," and that's what Alzheimer's does -- causing confusion, memory loss, disorientation and eventually destroying a patient's very identity. Along the way, the symptoms may include aggressiveness, moodiness, confusion and loss of speech.

Ever since 1907, when German physician Alois Alzheimer described a peculiar and fatal senile syndrome, his name has been linked with a cruel death that starts with simple forgetfulness and progresses to mental decline and the death of the mind. With an estimated 4 million people suffering from Alzheimer's in the United States, progress can never come too soon.

Until quite recently, doctors could do nothing as Alzheimer's destroyed minds and wreaked havoc among overwhelmed families.


photo of Grandma (Maggie)
Memories of Grandma

What is Alzheimer's disease? How do the current treatments work? What's on the horizon? Will we ever be able to diagnosis Alzheimer's early enough to halt it in its tracks?

Confusing cause
Pathologists recognize Alzheimer's disease by characteristic plaques in brain tissue. Although plaques contain large amounts of an insoluble protein called beta amyloid, it's unclear whether this protein is the cause or the effect of the underlying disease.

Some scientists blame "neurofibrillary tangles," which contain a protein called tau. Normally, tau encourages the formation of microtubules, which transport chemicals inside cells. But since the tangles are another hallmark of Alzheimer's, tau is also a suspect in causing the disease.

Ultimately, it may develop that beta amyloid and tau share the blame.

Until recently, a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease was equivalent to a death sentence. Now, better knowledge of what goes awry in the brain has offered some hope. Three medicines can reduce the symptoms in some patients. Although the drugs are not perfect -- they improve symptoms but do not interfere with the disease itself -- for many patients they do slow the decline. "The reaction of families is very positive, they are looking for anything they can get to give them hope," says George Grossberg, professor of psychiatry at St. Louis University. "Our goal is always to have them on the best possible medicine until something better comes along."

Much more impressive would be the discovery of a drug or a vaccine that halted the disease itself -- just in time to help the aging population of baby-boomers.

First things first. What's on the market now?

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