June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, so it is the time to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s and inspire action to aid individuals suffering from the disease and the path to a cure. Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common cause of dementia, causing memory loss and cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases. The majority of individuals with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, yet the disease is not a normal part of aging. Although Alzheimer’s has no cure, aducanumab is used as a treatment to potentially delay clinical decline. However, the disease is progressive, where sympyoms gradually worsen over time going from mild memory loss to losing the ability to perceive the environment and interact with others. As the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., a person with Alzheimer’s generally lives 4 to 8 years after diagnosis.
Signs and Symptoms
One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s disease, particularly in the early stage, is memory loss of recently learned events, as well as important dates and an increased reliance on others for aiding memory. In addition, individuals with Alzheimer’s face challenges in planning or solving problems and completing familiar tasks due to difficulty concentrating and remembering. By losing track of dates and time, people may experience confusion about their setting or forgetting how they arrived somewhere. Also, having visual problems, such as with balance or reading, as well as trouble with conversing and writing, are also signs of Alzheimer’s. A person with Alzheimer’s may also misplace their things and be unable to retrace their steps. Socially, some signs include withdrawal from work, hobbies, social activities, as well as changes in mood and personality.
If you notice these signs in yourself or others, it is important to voice your worries to a doctor in order to be evaluated for early detection and intervention. With early detection, there are more treatment options that can provide relief and allow you to maintain independence or join clinical drug trials.
Alzheimer’s and the Brain
The effects of Alzheimer’s on the brain can be observed under a microscope. Although scientists are not certain what causes cell death and tissue loss in the Alzheimer’s brain, the plaque and tangles help to explain the cognitive decline evident in among individuals with the disease. The Alzheimer’s brain has tissues with fewer nerve cells and synapses, as well as a buildup of plaques, which are abnormal clusters of protein fragments. Plaque forms when the protein beta-amyloid clumps together. The misfolding of the protein interferes with the proper function of the nerve cells and gradually builds up into plaques, which block cell-to-cell signaling at the synapse. At the same time, this buildup activates the immune system, which initiates inflammation in the brain.
Tangles are also in the Alzheimer’s brain, which are made up of twisted strands of another protein within dead and dying nerve cells. These tangles destroy cell transport, which prevents nutrients from moving across the cell membrane. As Alzheimer’s progresses, plaques and tangles spread through the cortex. In severe Alzheimer’s, most of the cortex is severely damaged, causing the individual to lose their ability to communicate with others, care for themselves, and recognize the people in their lives.
Treatment and Research
Although there is no cure, research is being done to find treatments to help with symptoms of the disease. Aducanumab is approved by the FDA as treatment of Alzheimer’s to potentially delay decline from the disease by removing amyloid from the brain. In clinical trials, it was able to slow the rate of cognitive decline, so that individuals can sustain their independence as long as possible. Aducanumab can be prescribed by a health care provider and the anti-amyloid antibody is an intravenously infused therapy.
There are also drugs that help in treating symptoms. For instance, cholinesterase inhibitors are prescribed to treat symptoms related to memory, thinking, language, and judgment. These medications prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is necessary for memory and learning.
A common problem faced by individuals with Alzheimer’s is insomnia, which can be treated by an orexin receptor antagonist: orexin is a type of neurotransmitter involved in the sleep cycle. However, there are many possible side effects, such as worsening depression, sleep paralysis, and impaired motor coordination.
Currently, Alzheimer’s is one of the most highly researched diseases as scientists use modern scientific technology and innovation to search for a cure. The Alzheimer’s Association is the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s research, by funding independent researchers through their International Research Grant Program. If you want to help this month, share information and donate to organizations dedicated to Alzheimer’s research and supporting those with the disease.