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Hope may be on the horizon

October 09, 2000

Hope may be on the horizon



By ANDREA BROWN-HURLEY / Staff Writer


There is hope for a cure for Alzheimer's disease, according to the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Aging.

Twenty years of scientific research has "opened numerous pathways that could lead to effective treatments for the disease," according to the agencies' Alzheimer's Web site.

The National Institute on Aging, which is a division of the NIH, is trying to determine whether estrogen replacement therapy can delay or prevent memory loss and Alzheimer's disease in women who have a parent, sibling or child with Alzheimer's, according to the Alzheimer's Association of Western Maryland.

Lab studies suggest estrogen exerts a wide range of potentially beneficial effects on nerve cells. Other studies have found that women taking estrogen may experience a reduced risk and delayed onset of dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

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Neuroscientists have discovered substances in the brain that seem to be related to the disease. Those substances are potential targets for biomedical treatments, according to the Web site.

One such treatment might be nerve growth factor, or NGF.

Scientists in one study gave NGF to several lab rats with memory impairment. The rats' ability to negotiate a maze improved, coming close to the ability seen in older rats with no impairment, the Web site states.

It isn't completely clear how NGF works, but it's known to be one of several growth factors in the brain. In simple terms, NGF helped the rats remember, and scientists hope it could have a similar effect on Alzheimer's patients.

An "Alzheimer's vaccine," an experimental drug dubbed AN-1792 that stimulates the immune system to attack plaque buildups that are hallmarks of Alzheimer's, is being tested on humans, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

In animal studies, AN-1792 prevented the formation of plaque in the brains of young mice.

A second group of treatment studies focuses on managing the disease by treating its symptoms and slowing its progress, either through drugs or behavioral approaches, according to the Web site.

In contrast to the biological research, the behavioral approach involves family members and care-givers. If these people know how to cope with the disease's symptoms, they can reduce the degree of disability associated with it, the Web site states.

Drugs are another way to approach the behavioral symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists are studying the effect of antidepressants on Alzheimer's patients because there is evidence that reducing depression may improve patients' abilities to carry out daily activities.

Many antidepressants, however, suppress activity in the same neurons affected by Alzheimer's disease. These drugs might make the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer's, such as memory loss, even worse, according to the Web site.

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