Approximately 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.
This insidious disease robs memories and ultimately stops the body from performing its basic functions. To this point, medical professionals have not found a way to stop the progression and there is no cure.
According to Neuroscientist Joseph Jebelli, and author of “In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s, hope is on the way. Jebilli estimates that there will be a medication out within the next 10 to 20 years that will prevent the disease.
“The idea is to push the disease back, by developing a drug that we can give to someone years before they start experiencing symptoms,” Jebelli told The Post. Researchers can determine who may need early treatment by using specific signs of the disease that are visible in the blood and spinal fluid, these are called biomarkers.
Jebelli says “It will change the course of the disease, pushing it back to the point where not only do they not experience any symptoms, but they’re dying naturally.”
If the onset of this disease can be delayed, this will have a huge impact on the number of cases. In a 2007 study out of Johns Hopkins, Jebelli writes, “if Alzheimer’s could be delayed for only one year, there would be 9 million fewer people with the disease by 2050.” Scientists at USC predict that a five-year delay “would effectively halve the globe’s 46 million [dementia] sufferers, saving health care services approximately $600 billion a year”.
Even though the process seems simple, progress toward finding a treatment and cure has been slow since the disease was discovered 111 years ago.
Alzheimer’s-like symptoms such as memory loss and agitation have been documented throughout history, however, the disease was not addressed until 1906 by German doctor, Alois Alzheimer. He identified similar patterns in his aging patients and noticed changes in their brain tissue. The disease was named after him in 1910.
However, he could not figure out what was causing the memory loss and neither could the scientists who studied the disease in the decades after him. They were all baffled as to what is causing the brain degeneration. “It’s a much trickier disease to understand in many ways, because with cancer and infectious diseases, there’s a very obvious target,” says Jebelli. “But with Alzheimer’s, the brain cells seem to just be withering away.”
Doctors have done their best to diagnose patients with the most common form of dementia, but the disease has been underreported in part by people’s fear of the disease and the hopelessness that comes with it.
This fear is what inspired Jebelli’s research. At the age of 12, his beloved grandfather, Abbas, started showing signs of the disease. Jebelli and his family were shocked. Abbas was an Iranian property developer who woke up at 5 every morning to hiking, never drank and ate generous amounts of fish and vegetables. After years of declining, he passed away in 2012 from pneumonia.
“It was interesting, because my granddad did live a very healthy lifestyle, and he still succumbed to Alzheimer’s. And a lot of the patients I spoke to as well were very healthy and very well-educated,” says Jebelli. But he says that a healthy diet, exercise and mental stimulation — like reading and socializing — have indeed been shown to fight off the symptoms of the disease.
“When you look at the science and the population studies, there is still a very strong connection between all these lifestyle factors and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s,” Jebelli says. Adding that diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, for example, has been linked to Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.
These studies have allowed scientists to gain a better grasp on what causes the severe memory loss and has brought the neuroscience community closer to an effective treatment.
“We now understand that Alzheimer’s seems to be caused by these proteins called plaques and tangles [in the brain],” he says. “What we’re doing now is actually targeting the underlying biology of the disease, instead of just targeting the symptoms, which is what scientists were doing [before].”
A growing understanding of how to treat the disease comes from a better understanding of the disease itself.
“The drug trials so far have actually been quite disastrous,” says Jebelli — this is most likely because the patient’s symptoms were too advanced by the time they were given the drugs. However, those failures gave scientists a better understanding of how the disease unfolds and forced them to develop methods that help predict a person’s odds of getting the disease.
Researchers are constantly searching for methods to reverse the symptoms that have already arisen.
“Doctors are doing amazing things with [human] stem cells,” says Jebelli, including reprogramming them into brain cells that are then implanted in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. This treatment will require more research and time, but Jebelli says it’s “still a possibility.”
With the potential of drugs and stem cells that could prevent the development of the disease, Jebelli is quite optimistic about the future of Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment: “We’re at the beginning of the end.”
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