Studies suggest that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s. Now there’s exciting and hopeful news for those, and others who may be at risk. A new drug that could reduce brain plaque by 90 % is being tested on 3000 patients in 21 countries. If successful, a pill could be available in 5 years.

The first 18 month phase of the study will enroll 1,960 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s, a group that already has significant plaque build-up. The second study, lasting two years, will be carried out on 1,500 patients who are at an earlier stage involving less severe memory problems.

PillIn patients with Alzheimer’s, clumps or plaques of a substance called amyloid beta protein stick to brain cells, leading to changes in memory, mood and behavior. Results from a previous three month study of 200 patients showed that the new drug, known as a BACE inhibitor, reduces amyloid plaques by up to 90 per cent. Both healthy volunteers and Alzheimer’s patients took the drug without any serious side effects.

A Crucial Test

The new study must show that reducing plaque actually makes a difference in patients with the disease, and prevents it from developing in those who only have memory problems. This is a crucial test because there are fears that amyloid plaque might be only a by-product of the disease, rather than its cause.

Dr Craig Ritchie of Imperial College, one of the international team of researchers, said the strategy adopted by this drug – called MK 8931 – is completely new. He explained, “The aim is to intervene before symptoms take hold. People with memory problems aren’t definitely going to get Alzheimer’s, but there’s a high likelihood it will affect two-thirds to three-quarters. Stopping the formation of plaque early on, when the clumps are small and most toxic, is a fresh approach. There is a great deal of excitement around this in the academic and medical community, but there is a huge amount of work to do.” He hopes that around 80 per cent of those developing Alzheimer’s might benefit from the drug.

Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, explained. “We know Alzheimer’s starts long before symptoms appear, and it’s likely treatments will have more chance of success if given early; so it’s positive to see this drug will be tested in people with early signs of the disease. We await the results of these trials with great interest.”

Children and Sports

Of interest to parents, a previous US study, published in the journal Neurology, using brain scans of 441 people with memory problems and 148 without memory problems suggests that a blow to the head – resulting in a concussion – may also be associated with Alzheimer’s. The participants, all aged 70 or older, were asked if they had ever suffered a brain injury that involved loss of consciousness or memory. The study found that older people who have had a concussion, and also have memory and thinking problems, have a build-up of amyloid brain plaques.  The study showed plaque levels 18 per cent higher in individuals who had at some point suffered a concussion resulting in at least a momentary loss of consciousness.

Leader of that study, Dr Michelle Mielke, from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, said, “Our results add merit to the idea that concussion and Alzheimer’s may be related.” Although treatment will hopefully improve, this is another reminder for parents to think about what sports their children participate in.


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