Neurodegenerative diseases affect the brain and diagnosing and treating these can be very challenging. Medical science has struggled for a long time in this area because it is a difficult task to get the medications to the brain which has a blood supply that is distinct from the rest of the body. Alzheimer’s is one such disease and seeking a cure for this seems to be next to impossible.
As a result, quite a few companies have given up on research in this field. The latest to cease efforts in this direction is Pfizer.
Recently, after many expensive failures over the last decade, the organization declared that it will no longer pursue its research into generating medications to tackle Alzheimer’s disease. This comes at a time when the CDC has said that death rates from Alzheimer’s have risen by 55% in the US.
What Prompted Pfizer’s Withdrawal?
The last few years have not been kind to clinical trials in the field. Pfizer as well as Johnson & Johnson had to suspend extended research into bapineuzumab, the antibody drug, in 2012. The drug’s dismal performance in late-stage trials involving Alzheimer’s patients was the reason for this move.
Why is it Difficult to Treat Dementia?
The fact is, there is no cure for dementia. The treatments available today can assist with managing symptoms but they hold no promise of recovery. So, why is it so difficult to use drugs to treat dementia? Is any progress being made in the search for a cure?
It is estimated that 46.8 million people across the world are afflicted by dementia. What complicates matters is that dementia can be brought on by over fifty different causes making it an extremely complex issue. In fact, dementia is more of an all-encompassing term for various conditions that result in progressive deterioration of the human brain.
Obstacles in Alzheimer’s Treatment
There are two major obstacles in the search for a definitive treatment for Alzheimer’s. The first one is the lack of information about the underlying biology of this condition. We do not know what leads to the toxic build up in the brain or why the progression of the disease varies from one person to another.Related: 11 Predictors of Alzheimer’s You Didn’t See Coming
The second significant challenge is that a method has to be developed that allows drugs to overcome the blood-brain barrier. This barrier keeps the brain safe from pathogens and toxins that might be found in blood. It has been designed in such a way that it effectively bars foreign substances from reaching the brain. However, the disadvantage is that it also prevents most drugs from accessing the brain.
Major Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s can develop over many years and by the time of diagnosis, the brain is likely to have experienced neurodegenerative changes. Also, Alzheimer’s may be present alongside other types of dementia. Here are some symptoms that might indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s. These can vary from person to person and it is important to consult a doctor if you or a loved one experiences any of these symptoms.
Challenges with Memory and Mental Agility
Fading Memory That Impacts Everyday Life: The most common symptom is a weakening memory. The inability to remember things just learned, losing track of significant dates and days, and seeking the same information repeatedly are some warning signs. If the person has to depend on memory aids or members of the family for assistance in recalling stuff, you might be right to start getting concerned.
Difficulty Solving Problems and Making Plans: It may be hard to make plans and to keep appointments. They might find it difficult to monitor bills and handle numbers in general. On an average day, they might find themselves incapable of following a recipe though it is something they have used many times previously.
Inability to Complete Regular Tasks: Simple things such as traveling to the place of work or recalling the rules of a favorite board game might become cumbersome. The patient might misplace belongings often and then be unable to retrace their actions and get them back. Blaming others for stealing their things is also a symptom of this condition and one that can get worse with time.
Losing Track of Time and Location: Forgetting the way to one’s home or office, finding oneself in a strange place and not knowing how they got there, frequently being disoriented about whereabouts, are all signs that there might be a problem that needs medical attention.
Speech, Vision and Mood Issues
Vision Problems: In some instances, changes in the visual ability may be a sign of Alzheimer’s. If they are unable to read the words in a book, have difficulty in recognizing colors, or find it hard to gauge distances, then you should consult a doctor immediately. These problems can also prove dangerous when driving.Related: Alzheimer Origination in the Body
Problems with Conversation: Finding the right words to express themselves becomes quite difficult. They might become confused about what something is called. They might suddenly find themselves at a loss for words in the midst of a conversation or keep repeating the same thing over and again.
Displaying Poor Judgement: There are likely to be glaring changes in decision-making skills as well as judgment calls. For instance, they might pay way more for something that they do not need. They might also show a lack of interest in maintaining personal hygiene or grooming oneself.
Withdrawing From Social Life: Lack of interest in mingling with others (such as attending events or parties), reluctance to go to work every day, not wanting to pursue a favorite hobby, and an increase in watching television, or just sleeping are all some warning signs to look out for.
Oscillating Mood and Changes in Personality: They might jump from one mood to the other within a matter of moments. Being out of their comfort zone can make them jittery and irritated. They might also get increasingly suspicious of people around them.
Hope for Alzheimer’s Patients
The medicines that are currently prescribed for Alzheimer’s patients focus more on managing the symptoms than actually eliminating them and thus curing the patient of the condition. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and memantine are the popular drugs now. However, researchers are now looking at ways of putting the brakes on the disease or even reversing its effects. This is being done by focusing on the underlying biology.
One technique is immunotherapy wherein antibodies are manufactured enabling them to target abnormal developments in the brain. These abnormalities are tagged for elimination through various methods. Immunotherapy is in the limelight with quite a few clinical trials being carried out.
Research for a Vaccine
A vaccine for Alzheimer’s might soon become a reality if clinical trials involving the antibody Aducanumab turn out to be successful. This is currently a prime focus area alongside Tao-based methods. It remains to be seen whether any one of these becomes a game-changer.
Counting the therapeutic antibodies that are being used in clinical trials, only a miniscule 0.1% of antibodies found in the blood, actually get inside the brain. One method being tested is to use ultrasound to throw open the blood-brain barrier for a short period of time. This can raise the chances of getting the treatment drugs or antibody fragments to their intended target.
The experiment has proven successful in mice with the ultrasound helping get rid of toxic tau protein clumps. Also, a combination of using ultrasound and antibody fragment treatment showed much more promising results in getting rid of tau and minimizing Alzheimer’s symptoms.Related: How to Reduce Alzheimer’s Risk
Working on bettering dementia drugs is easier said than done. It is possible only through a joint effort by the government, researchers, and the healthcare industry as a whole.