The Race For an Alzheimer’s Miracle

Researchers have made a flurry of discoveries related to memory loss recently. But will they really help us find a way to keep brains from shutting down?

Is there an end in sight for Alzheimer's?
Is there an end in sight for Alzheimer's? Image courtesy of Flickr user Susan NYC

If you made it through the Grammy Awards Sunday night, you probably saw onetime country pop star Glen Campbell. And you may know that, like almost every singer who had a few hits in the 1970s, Campbell’s in the middle of a farewell tour.

But this isn’t some Rolling Stones’ “I-can-still-dance-and-wear-tight-pants” spectacle. This is a real Farewell Tour. Because Campbell, now 75, has Alzheimer’s disease. And it won’t be long before he won’t remember lyrics or how to play the songs he’s performed thousands of times. Then things will get considerably worse.

In a perfect world every Alzheimer’s patient would get a farewell tour, a chance to make one last sweep through a life before all the names and connections and memories get locked away inside a shuttered brain. But most don’t, and instead disengage from the world as their family and friends watch, with no way to slow the cruel decline. Right now there are more than 5 million people with Alzheimer’s in the U.S. alone, with that number expected to triple by 2050.


Researchers discover a miracle drug that stops the downward spiral before it gets started. There’s been talk of this for years now, suggestions that scientists were getting close. It hasn’t happened. But just last week hopes were raised again with the report that researchers at Case Western Reserve in Ohio had made a remarkable discovery. After treating mice with a drug called bexarotene, usually a treatment for skin cancer, they found that, within 72 hours, the animals were able to start remembering things again.

The news set off a frenzy of calls to doctors from people anxious to know if this really was some magic cure. Could it actually reverse the horrible effects of Alzheimer’s on humans?

No one knows yet. It’s entirely possibile it will have little or no effect.  The scientists at Case Western hope to start a  small trial on humans this spring, which could last four months. But after that it’s hard to say how this will play out because the patents on bexarotene as a cancer drug, held by the Japanese pharmaceutical firm Eisai, Inc., run out this year and so far it hasn’t shown interest in funding the new research at Case Western.

Meanwhile, two other big pharmaceutical firms, Pfizer, Inc. and Eli Lilly will have data from trials on their own Alzheimer’s drugs later this year. Talk about high stakes–particularly for Pfizer, which badly needs a big seller, now that the patent on Lipitor, its cholesterol medication that was a cash cow for so many years, has run out. Can you imagine what it will mean to be first on the market with a truly effective Alzheimer’s treatment?

Darkness spreads

Two other discoveries announced this month, while not quite as dramatic as the bexarotene study, could be almost as pivotal in finding an effective treatment. The first, confirmed in separate studies at Harvard and Columbia, found that Alzheimer’s spreads from neuron to neuron along paths that nerve cells use to communicate with one another. And that suggests that one way to stop the disease would be to find a way to prevent cell-to-cell transmission.

In the other key finding, UCLA scientists determined that a brain imaging tool they developed could effectively track the buildup of memory-dimming plaque deposits in the brain, which could allow treatment to begin even before symptoms appear.

Consider them two more pieces that may help solve the nastiest brain puzzle of all.

Brain drains

Here’s more recent news on memory research:

Video bonus: Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert thinks we give our brains too much credit.  In this TED talk, he argues that their real purpose is not to let us think, but rather to help us move.

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