Medicine has long known about the potential causes of Alzheimer’s however finding a safe and reliable treatment has proven to be far more elusive. Current treatments centre on alleviating the symptoms of the disease, combating things like memory loss and cognitive function. However whilst these may provide some relief and quality of life improvement they do nothing to treat the underlying cause which is a combination of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Current research has heavily focused on the former which blocks communications between neurons in the brain and, so the theory goes, removing them will restore cognitive function. Recently two treatments have shown some incredibly positive results with one of them not too far off seeing widespread trials.
A drug company called Biogen has developed a drug called Aducanumab which has shown a significant effect in reducing the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s patients. It’s an antibody that helps trigger an immune system response and was created by investigating the antibodies present in healthy aged donors, with the reasoning going that they had successfully resisted Alzheimer’s related symptoms. The recent large clinical study showed an effect far beyond what the researchers were expecting, including a dose dependent effect. The drug is not yet available for widespread distribution, there’s still one more late stage trial to go, however it could see a wide market release as soon as 2018. It’s still far from a cure but the drug is capable of significantly slowing the progress of the disease, opening up the opportunity for other treatments to be far more effective.
New research from the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland investigated using focused ultrasound to help break up amyloid plaques. Essentially this treatment disrupts the blood-brain barrier temporarily, allowing microglial cells (which are essentially clean up cells) to enter the particular region of the brain and remove the plaques. After a short period of time, the research shows a couple hours or so, the blood-brain barrier is fully restored ensuring that there are no on-going complications. This allows the body to remove the plaques naturally, hopefully facilitating the restoration of cognitive function.
In the mouse model used the researchers found that they could fully restore the memories of 75% of the subjects affected, an incredibly promising result. Of course the limitations of a mouse model mean that further research is required to find out if it would work as well in humans but there’s already precedent for using this kind of technology for treatment of other brain related conditions. Considering that the mechanism of action is similar to that of Aducanumab (removal of amyloid plaques) the side effects and limitations are likely to be similar, so it will be interesting to see how this develops.
It’s great to see conditions and diseases like this, ones that used to be a long and undignified death sentence, slowly meeting their end at the hands of science. Treatments like this have the potential to vastly improve the quality of life of our later years, meaning we can still be active members of society for much longer. I’m confident that one day we’ll have these conditions pinned down to the point where they’re no more of a worry than any other chronic, but controlled condition.