Until scientists have a clear understanding of what Alzheimer’s disease is, we’re unlikely to find a treatment. That’s the claim being made by Reisa Sperling, a professor of neurology at Harvard University. While we can see the effects of Alzheimer’s and predict how it will progress, we still don’t know much about the reasons why it affects certain people or why the symptoms worsen as it progresses.
Sperling, a director of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital, suggests that there is a strong genetic factor which may give up to an 80% chance of developing Alzheimer’s. But, while there are tests to determine whether you have the responsible gene, it doesn’t really give us any real insight into how to treat it, plus having the gene doesn’t automatically mean that you will develop Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s ability to spread from one brain cell to another has been linked to ‘prions’, the misshapen proteins that cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob and mad cow disease. Alzheimer’s has also been attributed to oxidative stress; with others believing that it may develop in a similar way to type 2 diabetes. However, so far, none of these ‘links’ have been proven, and most scientists believe that it’s an auto-immune disease.
One theory for our inability to discover why people develop Alzheimer’s is that by the time sufferers exhibit symptoms, their brains have been subject to the effects of the disease for maybe two decades or more. This is why Sperling has suggested that treatment starts too late into the disease, long after it’s begun to take a hold, damaging neurons and allowing amyloid plaques to grow in the brain.
Until recently, Alzheimer’s disease could only be given as a definite diagnosis during an autopsy, and current testing on patients can be lengthy and taxing, putting sufferers through a battery of memory and cognitive tests. As Alzheimer’s patients exhibit a particular pattern of cognition loss, once all other physical possibilities have been eliminated, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is normally given. However, the condition must already be present for that result to be given, a bit of a ‘Catch 22′ situation that so far we’ve been unable to resolve.