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Why This Scientist Is Hopeful A Cure to Alzheimer's Disease Isn't Far Off

Why This Scientist Is Hopeful A Cure to Alzheimer's Disease Isn't Far Off
From TIME - January 4, 2018

Alzheimers disease is a most tragic disease. It robs people of their memories and identities; it steals ones sense of self. People affected by Alzheimers are growing in numbers. Currently, there are more than 5 million people in the U.S. diagnosed with Alzheimers disease. By 2050, that number could nearly triple, to 14 million people. The economic case is equally staggering. The Alzheimers Association reports that in 2017 Alzheimers disease and other dementias cost the U.S. more than $250 billion in health care and long-term care.

The need for a treatment is dire, and in the search for new medicines the rates of success are not highonly about 1% of early scientific discoveries will make it to become a medicine that reaches patients. It is a story that, on its face, sounds undeniably grim.

But it is misleading. When we consider each failed study, we can often uncover answers to the question, Why didnt this work? And those answers have propelled our understanding of Alzheimers disease forwardbringing us closer to finding a treatment.

Alzheimers disease is characterized by the buildup of two proteins, called beta-amyloid and tau, in the brain. Both normally exist there, but in Alzheimers disease, something goes wrong. Beta-amyloid forms abnormal deposits in the brain called plaques, and tau gets twisted and tangled inside brain cells, causing damage that with time results in memory loss.

Until recently, we could not see these proteins in patients without conducting an autopsy. One of the greatest advances in Alzheimers disease research is the ability to use a positron-emission tomography (PET) scan to confirm if a person has amyloid plaque or tau tangles in their brain before they begin a clinical study.

I can recall the stunning shift when we first used PET imaging in Alzheimers disease patients in 2010. The clinical center that we worked with had put forward 10 patients diagnosed with Alzheimers disease. Using this new imaging technique, we could see that three of them did not have amyloid plaque in their brainmeaning they did not, in fact, have Alzheimers disease. This constituted a dramatic change in the precision with which we could understand the disorder.

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