Since 1906, when Alois Alzheimer noted the signs and symptoms of early-onset dementia and deduced that they were a standalone disease, rather than the currently accepted theory of dementia being just another sign of ageing, to be accepted and dealt with as best one can, we have learned a lot about the condition. The main thing we have learned is that Alzheimer’s can affect old people, and that mental decline is not necessarily an inevitable part of ageing. We have also learned that signifiers of Alzheimer’s are the build up of toxic protein plaques of amyloid beta disrupting connections between neurons and thereby severing memory fragments, or engrams, from their fellows in a neural network, and also ‘tangles’ of another toxic protein, tau, which occurs inside the neurons. Between them, these toxic proteins trash our memories and cognitive functions resulting in the steady decline of memory, ability and health that marks the disease.
But there is good news too. Along with finding out how the disease occurs and progresses has come research and breakthroughs in how to manage and treat the condition. Let’s take a look at some of the latest innovations in Alzheimer’s treatment.
At present, drug treatments are designed to slow the progression of the condition as much as possible, and many drug treatments are based upon slowing or reversing the build-up of amylase beta. However, if the plaque builds up for too long, it can damage the underlying neural network – so that even if the plaque can be removed the memories and cognitive functions will remain lost. New drugs are in human testing phases and their trials on recently diagnosed patients are extremely positive. Rather than simply slowing the disease, these medications have been shown to stop it completely, with mental faculties staying at the level they were when the trial began. It is, obviously, just a treatment – meaning that the medication will have to be taken for a long time – but one that will hopefully be able to persist throughout the remainder of the patient’s life, in which they will enjoy a good quality of life in their own home or in one of the Eastleigh care homes in Somerset.
The one issue with these treatments is that the onset of Alzheimer’s can begin stealthily, as many as ten years before symptoms begin to show, with a slow build-up of toxic proteins until there is a relatively sudden ‘tipping point’ which causes a dramatic decline seemingly out of nowhere.
Another promising treatment lies in gene therapy, which could help those families who seem to have a genetic tendency towards Alzheimer’s. The gene responsible for Alzheimer’s can literally be snipped off the DNA of the patient,
and that new, edited version encouraged to replicate itself, leaving the potential sufferer with a greatly reduced chance of contracting the disease.
There are exercise that dementia sufferers can do to boost and retain their mental faculties. These will not work over a long time, but they can boost or retain cognitive function for long enough that one of the other treatments could be perfected.
Finally, and the most futuristic innovation is the current study into whether lifestyle changes can increase or reduce one’s chances of getting the condition in later life. If so, Alzheimer’s might be one of those diseases that can be avoided (or at least minimised) by eating and drinking well, sleeping sufficiently and enjoying an appropriate level of activity.