Researchers have made incredible strides in Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis in recent years. Learn about some of the most exciting discoveries, and what to expect from the future of Alzheimer’s research.
More than 55 million people worldwide live with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. There is currently no cure for this devastating neurodegenerative disease, and finding earlier detection methods and effective treatments is crucial. The only way we will uncover better treatments and cures for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s is through research—and because all brain diseases are interconnected, discoveries in Alzheimer’s research will also lead to advancements for other diseases.
In recognition of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, we’ve highlighted some of the most promising recent signs of advancements in Alzheimer’s disease.
Why Is it So Important to Fund Brain Disease Research?
We know that the different areas of the brain are all linked, so a disease that impacts one area often shares causes or symptoms with other similar diseases. For example, the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lewy body dementia (LBD) all share one key characteristic: misfolded protein buildups in the brain. Further research will enable early detection of these buildups and eventually unlock insights into how to treat and potentially reverse them.
Even research that focuses on only one of these conditions has the potential to reveal shared mechanisms responsible for disease progression, significantly advancing diagnosis and treatment of the others. In this way, funding brain disease research has a ripple effect, with one discovery having the potential to impact hundreds of millions of lives.
Signs of Progress in Alzheimer’s Research
While there is still much more to learn, the last decade has seen significant advancements in Alzheimer’s disease research. “The ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease has advanced tremendously with the development of amyloid PET scans, tau PET scans, and now blood-based biomarkers. It’s revolutionized the field,” says Jasmeer Chhatwal, MD, PhD, MMSc, Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Chhatwal received a Next Generation Research Grant from the American Brain Foundation in 2012 and now directs the Biomarkers of Neurodegeneration, Inflammation, and Cognitive Decline (BioNIC) laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Even within the last two years, we’ve seen two drugs that have shown signs that they can actually slow down cognitive decline,” he says. “I think that’s the first time in human history where we’ve actually had the possibility of disease-modifying therapies for a common [brain] disease like Alzheimer’s.”
Recent Breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s Research
The FDA recently granted accelerated approval to lecanemab, a new Alzheimer’s drug that is offering hope to many who are living with this previously untreatable disease. Lecanemab targets the progression of Alzheimer’s disease rather than simply alleviating some of its symptoms. It appears to slow the advancement of cognitive decline and is currently used for people in the early stages of the disease.
While we are still far from a cure, this is a promising first step toward being able to treat the most common form of dementia, which impacts over 6 million people in the U.S.
Current Alzheimer’s research is significantly focused on slowing the progression of the disease. A recent study from Vanderbilt University and the University of Glasgow identified a way to reduce some of the underlying mechanisms responsible for the progression of Alzheimer’s. Researchers were able to activate a specific brain protein—called the M1 receptor—that plays a crucial role in learning and memory. This improved the brain’s ability to transfer information between neurons and reduced inflammation—both of which contribute to the spread of misfolded proteins and neurodegeneration.
Diagnosis and Detection
Because Alzheimer’s disease starts years before symptoms appear, early detection and slowing progression of the disease is critical. Many researchers are working on innovative ways to detect Alzheimer’s sooner than ever before.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge analyzed health data and medical histories from half a million study participants and found they could accurately identify signs of dementia up to nine years before a diagnosis. Their goal is to create a more comprehensive screening method for neurodegenerative diseases so that doctors can detect early changes in brain function before symptoms appear.
Additionally, a research team in Bochum, Germany, discovered that using a particular sensor enabled them to detect Alzheimer’s disease in the blood up to 17 years before outward symptoms begin to show. Another study indicates it may soon be possible to diagnose Alzheimer’s using a single MRI scan and a specialized algorithm.
Current Research Funded by the American Brain Foundation
The American Brain Foundation is committed to funding research across the full spectrum of brain diseases and disorders through our Next Generation Research Grants program. Many of these innovative research projects will have implications for Alzheimer’s diagnosis and treatment.
NGRG recipient Eva Klinman, MD, PhD, is working on understanding the underlying mechanisms that lead to age-related neurodegeneration. Her project aims to identify age-related changes inside cells that may increase the risk for aging brains to develop neurodegenerative diseases and determine if there are ways to repair these cells. Additionally, Jeffrey Motter, PhD – another NGRG recipient – is working to develop simple, inexpensive, non-invasive, and easily available diagnostic tests for early detection of neurodegenerative diseases.
We are also partnering with the Alzheimer’s Association, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, and the American Academy of Neurology to fund research to find a blood-based biomarker (a biological indicator) to aid in the early diagnosis of Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). LBD is another common neurodegenerative form of dementia, meaning insights into diagnosis, progression, and treatment of one disease will impact the other.
At the American Brain Foundation, we know that curing one brain disease will lead to cures for many others. Brain disease impacts hundreds of millions of people around the globe—which is why funding research is so crucial. We hope you will join us during Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month and beyond as we continue to invest in critical, life-changing brain disease research. With your help, one day we will all be able to enjoy life without brain disease.
The American Brain Foundation was founded to bring researchers and donors together in the fight against brain disease. Learn more about brain disease or make a gift to support groundbreaking brain disease research.