Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
There is still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. It affects more than five million Americans, a number that could balloon to 16 million by 2050. Alzheimer’s dementia accounts for 60-80% of all forms of dementia. 10% of those 65 and older have it, and that number goes up to almost 50% by the age of 85.
We all know someone with dementia, and we’ve seen how devastating this disease is, yet there have been no new approved medications to offer to patients in nearly 15 years. Tragically, we are still a long way from a cure…but what treatments are out there on the horizon?
In 2015, Australian researchers found that ultrasound waves cleared amyloid plaques in mice. Amyloid plaques clump around neurons and are believed to contribute to Alzheimer’s. After treatment, 75% of the mice performed better on memory tests. There was no damage to surrounding tissue, and the treatment has the potential to be much cheaper than prescription medication. Clinical trials with humans have just begun.
Trazodone had been used as an antidepressant for many years, and today is mostly used to treat insomnia. Researchers are now finding that it can stop brain cells from dying. It is already being used in late-stage dementia, and is being considered for use in early stages as well. Testing in mice is underway. (Researchers are also looking at whether trazodone can be helpful for those with multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson's, Huntington's disease, and other motor neuron diseases.)
Dibenzoylmethane, originally found in licorice, is now being used as a cancer drug. It is being tested to see whether it can slow or stop brain cell death.
Victoza, a diabetes medication, shows some early promise. In early studies it appears to reverse memory deficits in mice.
There are a growing number of teas, herbal remedies, and dietary supplements being promoted for the delay or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The list includes coconut oil, coenzyme Q10, coral calcium, ginkgo biloba, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Note that claims about the safety and benefits of supplements and herbal products are often based on testimonials, but very little science. The rigorous scientific research required by the FDA for the approval of a prescription drug is not required in order to market dietary supplements or “medical foods.”
Almost everything that is scientifically known about Alzheimer’s has been discovered during the past 20 years. It has become a huge focus of neuroscience and biomedical research. The less that is known about a cure for a condition, the more creative (and unproven) are the cures that present themselves. That has certainly been the case when it comes to Alzheimer’s dementia. Be cautious when considering potential treatments, and stay tuned for new advances in the field.