In several past columns I have lamented the lack of true, measurable progress in finding a cure or even effective treatments in Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is a frightening diagnosis becoming more and more common in our aging population and estimates suggest we are on the brink of an epidemic. According to Alzheimer Society Canada, in 2011 there were 747,000 Canadians living with dementia with numbers expected to rise to 1.4 million by 2031 if nothing changes.
Not only is this disease that steals memory and cognitive function devastating for the individuals and loved ones who experience it, but it represents a looming health care crisis as well. Dementia currently costs $33 billion per year in direct and indirect costs and that number is expected to be $293 billion per year by 2040.
It is imperative we find some way to curb this problem and help the millions of people who will be affected by it in the coming years.Fortunately, there is new hope coming from Stanford University in the US. Studies in mice have found Alzheimer’s can possibly be prevented or even cured by blocking a single protein in the brain.
Researchers discovered that nerve cells die when microglia (cells that work to clear bacteria, viruses and other deposits) stop working properly. Microglia keep inflammation down and also clear amyloid-beta – both known to be problems in Alzheimer’s.
Microglia generally function well in young brains but as we age, a protein called EP2 gets in the way.
When scientists used a drug to block this protein in mice, the microglia could function normally again – reversing memory loss and other Alzheimer related symptoms.
Mice that were genetically modified not to have EP2 did not develop Alzheimer’s at all even when injected with a solution of amyloid-beta – which suggested the microglia were getting rid of the protein naturally.
Of course, these are early days and findings in animal studies do not always translate well to humans. But this research certainly offers an exciting prospect and hope that we could be on the road to developing interventions that can possibly prevent Alzheimer’s from developing and reverse it when it does develop.
If we are able to produce a compound that can achieve this safely and effectively, it will prove to be a major advancement in medical science and could dramatically change the face of healthcare in the coming years.
I am excited to see where this research takes us in the next few years.