The race to find a cure or prevention for Alzheimer's disease is happening all around the world, but there's a lot of hope riding on two studies being conducted in Chicago. One of them is a clinical trial of a drug that's being called potentially revolutionary.
While it may still be years before its efficacy is known, researchers are cautiously optimistic that it could be a turning point in the fight against dementia.
Eddie Arruza has the details.
Eddie Arruza: By all outward appearances, Roland Marquis seems to be in excellent health. The 74-year-old retired engineer says he maintains an active life to keep his body and mind in top shape. He says that includes everything from regular workouts and 5K runs to voracious reading.
Marquis' health regimen also includes a life as a human guinea pig in at Northwestern Medicine’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center.
Roland Marquis, trial participant: We believe that my mother was an Alzheimer's victim and that got me interested in it. I heard about Northwestern’s Alzheimer's unit years ago and I've been participating in several small trials since then. We're talking about decades now of doing this.
Arruza: But the latest trial Marquis has volunteered for just might be the one that turns the corner on preventing the dreaded disease.
Dr. Sandra Weintraub, Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology and the director of the Alzheimer's Disease Clinical Core Center Northwestern Medicine: This trial is really groundbreaking. For the first time ever in Alzheimer's research, we're trying out a medication when somebody is not showing symptoms at all but is at higher risk of developing Alzheimer's dementia over the next few years.
Arruza: About once a month, participants in the clinical trial receive an intravenous infusion of an experimental drug. The medication attacks the amyloids or plaque buildup in the brain that leads to dementia.
Weintraub: Amyloid is toxic to healthy brain cells, and the idea here is that we will find individuals who are at greater risk because of elevated amyloid and try this medication that is supposed to reduce levels of amyloid in the brain, or even preventing it from accumulating in an attempt to prevent the onset of cognitive decline.
Arruza: The infusion clinical trials are being conducted at 70 medical facilities throughout the U.S., Canada and Australia. But it's not the first go-round for the drug developed by the Eli Lilly Company. Previous trials targeted individuals diagnosed with dementia but the drug proved ineffective.
Weintraub: By the time somebody is showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, it's too late that the drug actually did reduce the amyloid and it did prevent more amyloid from accumulating. But the nerve cells are already damaged by that point in time.
Arruza: But the infusion trial is what's called a double-blind study, so Roland Marquis doesn't know if he's receiving the actual drug or a placebo. Still, he remains committed to sticking it out.
Marquis: It's a three-year study. I'm about eight months into it now so it's going to be a long-term thing.
Arruza: At a nearby lab at Northwestern Medicine, another study is underway. It tests how sending bursts of electricity into participants' brains might help maintain or improve cognitive and memory functions.
Dr. Joel Voss, Feinberg School of Medicine, director of study: We bring people in and we get a baseline assessment of their memory ability, and then we use powerful electromagnets to induce electrical activity in the parts of their brain that are critical for memory abilities, and we use functional magnetic resonance imaging as well as memory testing to see how their brain changes in its ability to support memory over many days of stimulation.
Arruza: 65-year-old David Aaron Harbin is a senior fitness coach. He's been part of the brain stimulation study for three months and says he was moved to volunteer because his mother has dementia. Harbin has not shown any signs of the disease himself, but says he wanted to take part in the study to do everything he can to keep from getting it.
David Aaron Harbin, study participant: I'm of the mindset and school of thought that just because it's in my family and there may be multiple reasons why my mother succumbed to it, my school of thought is prevention.
Arruza: The brain stimulation study actually began with much younger volunteers ranging in age from 20 to 35. Researchers say the idea was to see whether electromagnetic pulses could improve their ability to perform learning and memory tasks. Specifically the study is geared at one of the most critical parts of the brain responsible for memory. It’s called the hippocampus, located deep within the brain.
Voss: The methods we use to generate our electrical currents can only really go into a superficial centimeter or so of the brain tissue. So the hippocampus is down deep within the brain, but it has to communicate with a lot of those more superficial regions on the outside of the brain that we can stimulate. And so by stimulating those regions that communicate with the hippocampus using the electromagnetic stimulation, we show that you can improve that communication, essentially, and make them communicate more so than they did before the people received any stimulation at all.
Arruza: Initial results show that younger volunteers in the brain stimulation study did show signs of improved memory and learning from 24 hours to two and a half weeks after receiving the electromagnetic pulses. But long-term improvement is still unclear. As for the results from David Aaron Harbin's age group ...
Voss: So far we've only tested six healthy older adults, and those individuals are showing roughly the same magnitude of improvement that our young subjects showed.
Arruza: But whether it's electronic brain stimulation or drug treatment, Alzheimer’s researchers say the race to find a cure or prevention is imperative.
Weintraub: If we don't make this breakthrough at this time, we're going to have a huge number of people in this country with Alzheimer’s dementia by the year 2050. It's estimated that there will be close to 15 million individuals, and this will be a major hit on the public health system and our ability to care for people.
Arruza: In the meantime, Roland Marquis has advice for everyone about how to maintain mental fitness.
Marquis: You got to stay active.
The two studies at Northwestern Medicine are ongoing and volunteers are still needed. To learn more about the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer's Disease study, the one Roland Marquis is participating in, go here. For the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation study, the one that David Aaron Harbin is participating in, go here.
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