Patient one had two years of progressive memory loss. She was considering quitting her job, which involved analyzing data and writing reports, she got disoriented driving, and mixed up the names of her pets. Patient two kept forgetting once familiar faces at work, forgot his gym locker combination, and had to have his assistants constantly remind him of his work schedule. Patient three's memory was so bad she used an iPad to record everything, then forgot her password. Her children noticed she commonly lost her train of thought in mid-sentence, and often asked them if they had carried out the tasks that she mistakenly thought she had asked them to do.
Since its first description over 100 years ago, Alzheimer's disease has been without effective treatment. That may finally be about to change: in the first, small study of a novel, personalized and comprehensive program to reverse memory loss, nine of 10 participants, including the ones above, displayed subjective or objective improvement in their memories beginning within 3-to-6 months after the program's start. Of the six patients who had to discontinue working or were struggling with their jobs at the time they joined the study, all were able to return to work or continue working with improved performance. Improvements have been sustained, and as of this writing the longest patient follow-up is two and one-half years from initial treatment. These first ten included patients with memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease (AD), amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), or subjective cognitive impairment (SCI; when a patient reports cognitive problems). One patient, diagnosed with late stage Alzheimer's, did not improve.
The study, which comes jointly from the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, is the first to suggest that memory loss in patients may be reversed, and improvement sustained, using a complex, 36-point therapeutic program that involves comprehensive changes in diet, brain stimulation, exercise, optimization of sleep, specific pharmaceuticals and vitamins, and multiple additional steps that affect brain chemistry.
The findings, published in the current online edition of the journal Aging, "are very encouraging. However, at the current time the results are anecdotal, and therefore a more extensive, controlled clinical trial is warranted," said Dale Bredesen, the Augustus Rose Professor of Neurology and Director of the Easton Center at UCLA, a professor at the Buck Institute, and the author of the paper.
In the case of Alzheimer's disease, Bredesen notes, there is not one drug that has been developed that stops or even slows the disease's progression, and drugs have only had modest effects on symptoms. "In the past decade alone, hundreds of clinical trials have been conducted for Alzheimer's at an aggregate cost of over a billion dollars, without success," he said.
Other chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and HIV, have been improved through the use of combination therapies, he noted. Yet in the case of Alzheimer's and other memory disorders, comprehensive combination therapies have not been explored. Yet over the past few decades, genetic and biochemical research has revealed an extensive network of molecular interactions involved in AD pathogenesis. "That suggested that a broader-based therapeutics approach, rather than a single drug that aims at a single target, may be feasible and potentially more effective for the treatment of cognitive decline due to Alzheimer's," said Bredesen.
While extensive preclinical studies from numerous laboratories have identified single pathogenetic targets for potential intervention, in human studies, such single target therapeutic approaches have not borne out. But, said Bredesen, it's possible addressing multiple targets within the network underlying AD may be successful even when each target is affected in a relatively modest way. "In other words," he said, "the effects of the various targets may be additive, or even synergistic."
The uniform failure of drug trials in Alzheimer's influenced Bredesen's research to get a better understanding of the fundamental nature of the disease. His laboratory has found evidence that Alzheimer's disease stems from an imbalance in nerve cell signaling: in the normal brain, specific signals foster nerve connections and memory making, while balancing signals support memory loss, allowing irrelevant information to be forgotten. But in Alzheimer's disease, the balance of these opposing signals is disturbed, nerve connections are suppressed, and memories are lost.
The model of multiple targets and an imbalance in signaling runs contrary to the popular dogma that Alzheimer's is a disease of toxicity, caused by the accumulation of sticky plaques in the brain. Bredesen believes the amyloid beta peptide, the source of the plaques, has a normal function in the brain – as part of a larger set of molecules that promotes signals that cause nerve connections to lapse. Thus the increase in the peptide that occurs in Alzheimer's disease shifts the memory-making vs. memory-breaking balance in favor of memory loss.
Given all this, Bredesen thought that rather than a single targeted agent, the solution might be a systems type approach, the kind that is in line with the approach taken with other chronic illnesses—a multiple-component system.
"The existing Alzheimer's drugs affect a single target, but Alzheimer's disease is more complex. Imagine having a roof with 36 holes in it, and your drug patched one hole very well—the drug may have worked, a single "hole" may have been fixed, but you still have 35 other leaks, and so the underlying process may not be affected much."
Bredesen's approach is personalized to the patient, based on extensive testing to determine what is affecting the plasticity signaling network of the brain. As one example, in the case of the patient with the demanding job who was forgetting her way home, her therapeutic program consisted of some, but not all of the components involved with Bredesen's therapeutic program, and included:
(1) eliminating all simple carbohydrates, leading to a weight loss of 20 pounds; (2) eliminating gluten and processed food from her diet, with increased vegetables, fruits, and non-farmed fish; (3) to reduce stress, she began yoga; (4) as a second measure to reduce the stress of her job, she began to meditate for 20 minutes twice per day; (5) she took melatonin each night; (6) she increased her sleep from 4-5 hours per night to 7-8 hours per night; (7) she took methylcobalamin each day; (8) she took vitamin D3 each day; (9) fish oil each day; (10) CoQ10 each day; (11) she optimized her oral hygiene using an electric flosser and electric toothbrush; (12) following discussion with her primary care provider, she reinstated hormone replacement therapy that had been discontinued; (13) she fasted for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, and for a minimum of three hours between dinner and bedtime; (14) she exercised for a minimum of 30 minutes, 4-6 days per week.
The results for nine of the 10 patients reported in the paper suggest that memory loss may be reversed, and improvement sustained with this therapeutic program, said Bredesen. "This is the first successful demonstration," he noted, but he cautioned that the results are anecdotal, and therefore a more extensive, controlled clinical trial is needed.
The downside to this program is its complexity. It is not easy to follow, with the burden falling on the patients and caregivers, and none of the patients were able to stick to the entire protocol. The significant diet and lifestyle changes, and multiple pills required each day, were the two most common complaints. The good news, though, said Bredesen, are the side effects: "It is noteworthy that the major side effect of this therapeutic system is improved health and an optimal body mass index, a stark contrast to the side effects of many drugs."
The results for nine of the 10 patients reported in the paper suggest that memory loss may be reversed, and improvement sustained with this therapeutic program, said Bredesen. "This is the first successful demonstration," he noted, but he cautioned that the results need to be replicated. "The current, anecdotal results require a larger trial, not only to confirm or refute the results reported here, but also to address key questions raised, such as the degree of improvement that can be achieved routinely, how late in the course of cognitive decline reversal can be effected, whether such an approach may be effective in patients with familial Alzheimer's disease, and last, how long improvement can be sustained," he said.
Cognitive decline is a major concern of the aging population. Already, Alzheimer's disease affects approximately 5.4 million Americans and 30 million people globally. Without effective prevention and treatment, the prospects for the future are bleak. By 2050, it's estimated that 160 million people globally will have the disease, including 13 million Americans, leading to potential bankruptcy of the Medicare system. Unlike several other chronic illnesses, Alzheimer's disease is on the rise—recent estimates suggest that AD has become the third leading cause of death in the United States behind cardiovascular disease and cancer.
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