Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's

October 2, 2018 by Marilynn Marchione
Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's
Principal Scientist Jessica Langbaum, right, and her mother, Ivy Segal, 67, go over procedures for Segal's gene testing Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. Banner is conducting two studies that target the very earliest brain changes while memory and thinking skills are still intact in hope of preventing the disease. (AP Photo/Matt York)

It may be too late to stop Alzheimer's in people who already have some mental decline. But what if a treatment could target the very earliest brain changes while memory and thinking skills are still intact, in hope of preventing the disease? Two big studies are going all out to try.

Clinics throughout the United States and some other countries are signing up participants—the only studies of this type enrolling healthy older people.

"The excitement in the Alzheimer's field right now is prevention," said Dr. Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, which is leading the work.

Science so far has failed to find a drug that can alter the progression of Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia; 146 attempts have failed over the last decade, a recent industry report found. Even drugs that help remove the sticky plaques that clog the brains of people with the disease have not yet proved able to stave off mental decline.

It may be that they were tried too late, like lowering cholesterol after someone has suffered a heart attack whose damage can't be undone, Reiman said.

"What we have been learning, painfully, is that if we really want to come up with therapies that will modify the disease, we need to start very, very, very early," said Dr. Eliezer Masliah, neuroscience chief at the National Institute on Aging.

Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's
Larry Rebenack, 71, finishes his gene testing procedure Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. "I have a lot of friends and acquaintances I've seen deteriorate," including one who started blowing through stop signs on a route to a golf course they had safely traveled for years, and another who forgot not only where he had parked his car but even what kind of car it was, Rebenack said. "It's a disease that takes a little part of you away each day." (AP Photo/Matt York)

His agency is funding the prevention studies with the Alzheimer's Association, several foundations, and Novartis and Amgen, makers of two experimental drugs being tested.

The goal is to try to block the earliest steps of plaque formation in healthy people who show no symptoms of dementia but are at higher risk for it because of age and a gene that makes it more likely.

To participate, people must first join GeneMatch, a confidential registry of folks interested in volunteering for various Alzheimer's studies who are ages 55 to 75 and have not been diagnosed with any .

They are checked for the APOE4 gene, which doesn't destine someone to develop Alzheimer's but raises that risk. About one in four people have one copy of the gene and about 2 percent have two copies, one from each parent.

More than 70,000 people have signed up since the registry began three years ago, said Jessica Langbaum, one of the Banner study leaders.

Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's
Dr. William Burke goes over a PET brain scan Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. It may be too late to stop Alzheimer's in people who already have some mental decline but Banner is conducting two studies that target the very earliest brain changes while memory and thinking skills are still intact in hope of preventing the disease. (AP Photo/Matt York)
"Most of them have been touched by the disease personally," either by having a family member or close friend with it, she said.

Langbaum's 67-year-old mother, Ivy Segal, gave a DNA sample through a cheek swab and joined the registry in August. Her father was a patient at Banner and died of Alzheimer's in 2011 at age 87. Watching him go from a mild-mannered man whose smile could light up a room to what he was like when he died was devastating, she said.

Being in GeneMatch doesn't necessarily mean you'll find out if you have the gene—folks with and without it may be contacted about various studies. But to be in one of the two prevention studies, people must agree to learn their APOE4 status and have at least one copy of the gene.

Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's
A Novartis-labeled box is cataloged prior to testing procedures Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. Novartis and Amgen are making of two experimental drugs being tested to try to prevent Alzheimers while memory and thinking skills are still intact. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Participants get periodic brain scans and memory and thinking tests every six months. They are given experimental drugs or placebo versions of them for several years.

One study is enrolling people with two copies of the gene. They are given either shots every few months of a drug intended to help the immune system clear plaque from the brain or daily pills of a drug intended to prevent first steps of plaque formation, or placebo versions of these experimental treatments.

The other study is in people who either have two copies of APOE4 or one copy of the gene plus evidence on of plaque starting to build. They will get one of two doses of the drug to prevent or placebo pills.

Larry Rebenack, 71, of the Phoenix suburb of Surprise, Arizona, joined GeneMatch in August.

Studies in healthy older people aim to prevent Alzheimer's
Principal Scientist Jessica Langbaum discusses GeneMatch, a confidential registry of people interested in volunteering for Alzheimer's studies who are ages 55 to 75 and have not been diagnosed with any mental decline, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018 at Banner Alzheimers Institute in Phoenix. More than 70,000 people have signed up since the registry began three years ago, said Langbaum. "Most of them have been touched by the disease personally," either by having a family member or close friend with it." (AP Photo/Matt York)
"I have a lot of friends and acquaintances I've seen deteriorate," including one who started blowing through stop signs on a route to a golf course they had safely traveled for years, and another who forgot not only where he had parked his car but even what kind of car it was, Rebenack said. "It's a disease that takes a little part of you away each day."

Rebenack has decided to learn whether he has the gene if researchers give him the chance to find out.

"It's like any other piece of information. It helps you plan your life and you owe it to all your loved ones, too."

Explore further: Alzheimer's disease – don't give up on plaque-busting drugs just yet

Related Stories

Alzheimer's disease – don't give up on plaque-busting drugs just yet

September 28, 2018
Alzheimer's disease is associated with a build-up of plaques in the brain called amyloid beta. These plaques are thought to lead to a loss of neurons, which then causes the classic symptoms of the disease – including memory ...

New way of defining Alzheimer's aims to find disease sooner

April 10, 2018
Government and other scientists are proposing a new way to define Alzheimer's disease—basing it on biological signs, such as brain changes, rather than memory loss and other symptoms of dementia that are used today.

Genetic testing—should you be tested for Alzheimer's risk?

August 2, 2018
Thanks to advances in genetic testing, there is now a way for consumers to test for the greatest genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's disease.

Can Alzheimer's be stopped years before it starts?

September 15, 2017
Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC are tackling the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States—Alzheimer's disease—with a new study that intervenes decades before the disease develops.

Is Alzheimer's caused by disruptions to the brain's energy supply?

April 4, 2018
It is well known that Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, involves the accumulation of sticky proteins (plaques and tangles) in the brain. But we still don't know what the root cause of the disease is. ...

Alzheimer's damage in mice reduced with compound that targets APOE gene

December 6, 2017
People who carry the APOE4 genetic variant face a substantial risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.

Recommended for you

Hypothesis underpinning dementia research 'flawed'

October 16, 2018
A hypothesis which has been the standard way of explaining how the body develops Alzheimer's Disease for almost 30 years is flawed, according to a University of Manchester biologist.

Many cases of dementia may arise from non-inherited DNA 'spelling mistakes'

October 15, 2018
Only a small proportion of cases of dementia are thought to be inherited—the cause of the vast majority is unknown. Now, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, a team of scientists led by researchers ...

Scientists create new map of brain region linked to Alzheimer's disease

October 8, 2018
Curing some of the most vexing diseases first requires navigating the world's most complex structure—the human brain. So, USC scientists have created the most detailed atlas yet of the brain's memory bank.

Previously unknown genetic aberrations found to be associated with Alzheimer's progression

October 8, 2018
In a large-scale analysis of RNA from postmortem human brain tissue, researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and Columbia University have identified specific RNA splicing events associated with Alzheimer's ...

Periodontal disease bacteria may kick-start Alzheimer's

October 4, 2018
Long-term exposure to periodontal disease bacteria causes inflammation and degeneration of brain neurons in mice that is similar to the effects of Alzheimer's disease in humans, according to a new study from researchers at ...

AI could predict cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer's disease in the next five years

October 4, 2018
A team of scientists has successfully trained a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to make accurate predictions regarding cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer's disease.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.