Alzheimer’s Research

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

There are no drugs currently available that cure Alzheimer’s. But there is new research coming out every day that will help us understand and eventually treat the condition.1

Many different researchers and doctors study Alzheimer’s. The work they do should help uncover accurate, actionable information about Alzheimer’s. The areas they focus on vary, and include:1-5

  • Understanding the biology of the disease
  • Lifestyle changes that affect it
  • Drugs to treat it

Drug discovery

There are many kinds of drugs that are currently in development or in clinical trials. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports drug research to address both causes and symptoms of Alzheimer’s.1

There are currently around 10 different Alzheimer’s drugs in clinical trials. These drugs have been shown to be effective and safe in a lab or in animals. Now, the drugs are ready to be tested in humans. Clinical trials assess if an intervention (such as a drug or treatment) is effective at preventing, diagnosing, or treating a disease.1

You can volunteer for clinical trials if they are available and if you are eligible. There are around 10 drug candidates for Alzheimer’s. But there are more than 40 other drugs in clinical trials. These other 40 drugs may target different aspects of the disease and help to prevent or treat symptoms.1

Genetic and biomarker studies

There are also blood and other body fluid tests and genetic testing available. Blood tests can look at different biological markers for Alzheimer’s, including a harmful protein called beta-amyloid. They can also look at other factors that may be contributing to symptoms.3

More is being discovered about the genetics of Alzheimer’s as well. The majority of early-onset Alzheimer’s is genetic. In these cases, a copy of the mutated (changed) gene for Alzheimer’s comes from one or both parents. There are 3 known genetic mutations (changes) for Alzheimer’s:3

  • The AAP gene on chromosome 21
  • Presenilin 1 (PSEN1) on chromosome 14
  • Presenilin 2 (PSEN2) on chromosome 1

More recently, a type of brain imaging is being used to measure how much brain volume is lost over time. Decreasing brain volume reflects the degree of neuronal loss. This imaging technique is called “volumetric MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).” Doctors have found that shrinkage in specific brain areas is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and research is ongoing.3

Population studies and lifestyle interventions

Researchers are also using a type of study called a “population study” to find links between lifestyle factors and Alzheimer’s disease. These studies look at large groups of people. They track things like:1

  • Exercise and eating habits
  • Cognitive training (mental exercise)
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Education

Through these studies, researchers have made a few key observations. They have found certain things that may increase dementia risk, including:1

  • Sedentary (not active) behavior
  • Low socioeconomic status or education
  • Living in a poor neighborhood

Researchers are currently looking into whether physical exercise, cognitive training, certain ways of eating, and preventive healthcare could prevent or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.1

Challenges, controversies, and future directions

Though great strides have been made in Alzheimer’s research, there is still a long way to go. There have also been controversies within Alzheimer’s research that are being debated and resolved.4,5

Beta-amyloid plaques are one of the foremost hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain. These collections of harmful protein cause cell death and connection issues in the brain. Many drugs have aimed to reduce the amount of beta-amyloid in the brain because of this.4

But there may be more to the story. When beta-amyloid builds up, the amount of soluble beta-amyloid in the brain decreases. Some researchers believe it is this decrease that causes Alzheimer’s symptoms.4

This idea comes from the fact that people develop plaques in their brain naturally as they age. But not everyone develops dementia, even when after-death studies show beta-amyloid plaques.4

Even more importantly, clinical trials of drugs that reduce amyloid levels in the brain did not slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. In fact, drugs that reduced soluble beta-amyloid levels have actually made symptoms worse. Research is actively being done to determine the right way to address plaques and help people’s symptoms.4

Alzheimer’s research is improving every day. One study found that because of recent advancements, a third of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s did not actually have it. This kind of precision is encouraging. As research continues, the accuracy and efficacy of drugs, tests, and interventions will only improve.5

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