Alzheimer’s panel at HJ23 will explore unanswered questions

Photo courtesy of the National Institute on Aging

If any headline could sum up the state of research into Alzheimer’s disease it may be this: “Study reveals that much still not known about cognitive decline.”

Despite decades of research, there’s so much scientists have yet to learn about this degenerative disease. Risk factors, causes, amyloid plaque, tau tangles, Lecanemab, biomarkers and more are topics of dozens of research studies underway.

An expert panel will address these and other Alzheimer’s-related topics during the session Alzheimer’s update: What journalists can learn from latest research, at 4 p.m. CST on Friday, March 10, at Health Journalism ’23 in St. Louis. I’m moderating the discussion.

The panel comprises David Holtzman, M.D., scientific director of the Hope Center for Neurological Disorders, co-director of the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and former chair of neurology at Washington University, St. Louis; Suzanne Schindler, M.D., a Washington University clinical neurologist and dementia specialist whose recent research has been on developing and testing fluid (blood and CSF) biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease; and Bryan James, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago. His research focuses on finding risk factors for the disease at the population level, and what social, lifestyle, and medical factors may protect against or increase vulnerability in the aging brain.

Targeted screenings and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease are highly complex and still not completely understood. We know some of the genetic and lifestyle risk factors, we know some of the associations between sleep, exercise, social isolation, medications and diet; but there’s so much yet to learn about Alzheimer’s. Known risk factors — including socioeconomic status, education and race — only explain about 38% of the variation in functioning among Americans at age 54, according to a study from Ohio State University.

One thing we do know: about 6 million people in the U.S. and 55 million people worldwide have the disease, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. By 2060, the CDC predicts Alzheimer’s will affect nearly 14 million people in the U.S., though some of what appears to be an increase is partly the result of the aging of the population.

Among the questions researchers are racing to answer:

  • Why does one person with plaques seem to be fine while others progress on a steep trajectory?
  • How do protective factors, like cognitive resilience, play a role in mitigating the disease?
  • Why has it taken so long to find a drug that only works for some people, some of the time?
  • What does clinical evidence reveal about brain degeneration in addition to amyloid beta and tau? Are there other forces at work?
  • Why do women seem to develop Alzheimer’s more frequently than men?
  • What do we know about the role of COVID in longer term memory impairment?

And can we please do something about those darn commercials that prey on hope and fear without any scientific basis? (OK, this one is a personal pet peeve.)

Here’s just a sampling of the interesting research that’s underway:

  • Last year, researchers identified a usable biomarker from blood samples to characterize early-stage Alzheimer’s disease (AD) patients, to facilitate rapid diagnosis, early therapeutic intervention, and monitoring of clinical trials.
  • The Alzheimer’s association is funding more than 950 active projects in 48 countries, where scientists are looking at everything from translational research and clinical interventions to molecular pathogenesis and physiology.
  • The NIH is funding hundreds of studies on, for example, new treatments, PET imaging, light and cognitive therapy and potential treatments for people with moderate-to-severe agitation due to the disease.
  • More institutions, including Rutgers University, are turning some of their focus to Alzheimer’s and dementia-related research and treatment.

We’ll touch on a lot of these developments during the March 10 session, so add it to your Whova agenda!

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