Alzheimer’s disease was first documented one hundred years ago by the German neurologist Alois Alzheimer who studied the disease through observing a 50 year old woman and the various stages of the progression of the dementia. Through these early studies we were able to gain an insight into this progressive disease of the brain that leads to the annihilation of brain cells causing severe memory loss and ultimate death.
Alzheimer’s is caused by the buildup plaques and tangles of filaments in the brain leading it to atrophy. Diagnosis of this condition is only usually possible by using a combination of brain scans, blood tests and a series of interviews carried out by a specialist in the subject. This is a time consuming process that can hinder a diagnosis and the application of medication which would give the patient a better quality life and a chance to fight the deterioration caused by the disease.
A team of researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London, have used computers to highlight the differences in scans shown with patients with Alzheimer’s and those with other forms of dementia. This improvement in diagnosis has been heralded as a revolutionary step towards streamlining the process of identification without the need for expensive and often unavailable trained technicians whilst also giving the opportunity to speed up drug trials.
Professor Frackowiak states that “This could prove a powerful and non-invasive tool for screening the efficacy of new drug treatments speedily, without a need for large costly clinical trials.”
Researchers at the Queensland Brain Institute ( QBI ) based at the University of Queensland have found important clues to the reason why Alzheimer’s develops in the brain by going back to basics and studying the developing brain of a baby. Dr Elizabeth Coulston and her colleagues have found that a baby’s brain will produce twice the number of nerve cells it needs to function; the cells that receive both chemical and electrical stimuli will survive, whilst the remaining cells will die off.
A mere three years research have led them to the discovery that if the brain cell is not stimulated in the correct manner, it automatically “self destructs” which can lead to neurological problems including dementia.
They believe that with the correct stimulation, these brain cells will be prevented from dying and hope that the next step in their research will concentrate on the cells receiving electrical stimulation only, and enable them to show a reversal in the process of brain cell deterioration and rejuvenate damaged brain cell activity.
QBI Director, Professor Perry Bartlett is excited about this new find and has said that with the knowledge that they have already gained about stimulating new neurons in the brain coupled with the understanding of how the brain sustains cell activity he predicted a better understanding of how to treat and reversing the effects of neurological disorders in the future.
Thus research into this condition has been intense and diverse, leading to the optimistic view that a cure may be just around the corner. Professor Simon Lovestone , chairman of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust’s scientific advisory board says: “While we may not completely regain what has been lost in brain function, some effects of Alzheimer’s disease will be reversible. And many, many more lives will be vastly improved.”
Although recent studies have found that while a cure for this devastating disease is still out of our reach, an optimistic approach can be made to it by focusing on prevention rather than cure. Attention to diet has been highlighted with an emphasis on the B vitamins for reducing homocysteine levels, an element that has been linked to Alzheimer’s and omega three fish oils.
A research team at the University of California has concluded that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil might play an important role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and although it gives no benefit in slowing down the process of Alzheimer’s, it can significantly prevent the disease developing in the first place.
Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust upholds these findings by stating that people have a much better chance of staving off the disease if they improve their quality of diet and level of exercise and keep their brains active by doing things like crosswords.
Drug treatments are available that can slow down the progression of the disease in the early stages and it is essential that a diagnosis is reached as early as possible to gain the maximum benefits from medication which work by maintaining a chemical shortage in the brain.
At the moment there are five drugs available to treat dementia. These include four acetylcholinesterase inhibitors – donepezil ( Aricept ), galantamine ( Razadyne , Reminyl , Nivalin ), rivastigmine ( Exelon ), and tacrine – and one neuropeptide -modifying agent – memantine ( Mamenda ).
These drugs will not cure Alzheimer’s they merely slow down the progress of the disease and ease the symptoms for a limited amount of time. Only time will tell whether dedicated research of this devastating illness can find some kind of clue that will lead us to the Holy Grail of neurological science and find the answer to curing Alzheimer’s disease and other associated brain disorders once and for all.