Friday, December 24, 2004

Encouraging news about Alzheimer's

Holly VanScoy, of HealthDay, interviews Alzheimers researchers. They're hopeful that recent breakthroughs will clarify mechanisms of the disease, and lead to more effective treatments.
Dr. Sam Gandy, vice chair of the National Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer's Association and director of the Farber Institute for Neurology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, agrees the next five to 10 years are likely to bring significant advances in both diagnosis and treatment of this presently irreversible condition.

Gandy is among the researchers who see the key to Alzheimer's may lie with the diagnosis and treatment of plaques and other abnormal protein aggregates called "tangles" in the brain, which many scientists think might be the hallmarks of Alzheimer's. The main component of plaques, a toxic protein fragment called beta-amyloid, is a primary suspect in the death of brain cells, which causes the mental deterioration that marks the condition.

He cites a breakthrough by Dr. William E. Klunk and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. They recently developed a compound known as Pittsburgh Compound-B (PIB) that sticks to amyloid plaques and makes them visible on positron emission tomography (PET) scans for the first time. According to Gandy, the ability to finally view, monitor and measure amyloid probably heralds the beginning of a new chapter in Alzheimer's research.

"Combined with advances in medications to rid the brain of amyloid plaques, this could very well result in a major breakthrough in our understanding of and successful treatment of Alzheimer's," Gandy said. "It will not only answer questions about how amyloid damages brain cells, but it will help us monitor whether and how well the new medications work."

According to Gandy, as PET technology becomes more widespread, it will be increasingly possible to test the hypothesis that amyloid is the primary culprit in Alzheimer's.

"Our inability to visualize or measure amyloid in the brain was a huge bottleneck for research," Gandy explained. "Now that there are both medications that can rid the brain of amyloid and a method of visually monitoring the amount of amyloid present and the effect of the medication on it, we're about to move past that bottleneck once and for all. We should know very soon whether amyloid is the right target or whether our focus on it has been a huge mistake."

And what's factors appear to play a role in prevention:
"...It's become clear that lifestyle factors that are bad for the heart are also bad for the brain. Cholesterol, obesity, diabetes -- these take their toll on the brain. Living a healthy, mentally and physically active lifestyle turns out to be a fairly good way to protect brain cells and, potentially, prevent Alzheimer's."

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