Breakthrough Alzheimer’s trial shows memory loss is reversible

In the year I’ve been writing about scientific developments for Alphr, the field of dementia and Alzheimer’s research feels amongst the most exciting. Using advanced technologies like VR, we’re learning more about the way memories are formed in mice, and we’ve even been able to restore lost memories to rodents with the use of blue light.

Breakthrough Alzheimer’s trial shows memory loss is reversible

That’s great for mice, but what of humans? Well, our breakthrough moment is here, as demonstrated by a

small study published in Aging this month. Usually a small study – and with only ten participants, this really is a small study – would raise some alarm bells, but the tailored treatments to each patient means that a larger study would have been tricky to carry out, and the results are so startling that it’s definitely worth acknowledging. The researchers saw amazing results in the ten patients, including the rediscovery of a second language and the return to work of a man planning on closing his business.

The researchers call their treatment MEND – or “metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration” to give it its full title. MEND is based on 36 factors including exercise, diet, and sleep in addition to a selection of drugs, vitamins and brain stimulation therapy. All ten patients followed a program from between five to 24 months, and there were real tangible improvements in the various case studies. “All of these patients had either well-defined mild cognitive impairment, subjective cognitive impairment, or had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease before beginning the program,” explained Dale Bredesen from the University of California. “The magnitude of improvement in these ten patients is unprecedented, providing additional objective evidence that this programmatic approach to cognitive decline is highly effective.”

“All but one of the patients carried a copy of the APOE4 allele, making them a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease”

All but one of the patients carried a copy of the APOE4 allele, making them a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Five of them carried two copies, which makes them 10 to 12 times more likely to develop the disease. Each patient’s unique circumstances means there is no one-size-fits-all formula, but you can read about each fascinating case study in the paper itself.

READ NEXT: Mice regain lost memories with blue light therapy

It includes the story of a 66 year-old man whose hippocampal volume had reduced to the 17th percentile. After ten months on MEND, his hippocampal volume had increased to the 75th percentile, and improvements in memory and cognitive ability followed.alzheimers_treatment_restoring_memories

Perhaps more inspiring is the tale of a 69-year-old entrepreneur who was planning on shutting down his business due to 11 years worth of memory loss, and the signs of early Alzheimer’s. 22 months of MEND later, he had gone from the 3rd to the 84th percentile on a “long term recall” metric, and has gone back to work to expand his business.

Yet another patient – a 49 year-old woman – regained the ability to speak two languages after nine months of treatment, along with improvements to recall, navigation and facial recognition.

“A 49 year-old woman regained the ability to speak two languages after nine months of treatment”

It’s a genuinely exciting improvement in the field of one of the cruelest diseases around, but it’s important to be aware of the current limitations of the research. The first is that each MEND program has to be tailored to an individual, making it a potentially hugely time consuming and costly program. The second issue ties into that – it seems that if it is not maintained, improvements can vanish as quickly as they appeared, with one case study seeing rapid deterioration just three months after ending their therapy.

Those that stick with the treatment seem to have permanent improvements though – or at least, haven’t declined yet, four years in to the trial. It could, of course, stop working tomorrow, but for now it looks very promising indeed.

Finally, ten patients is – as noted above – a tiny sample size, but the nature of the personalised study makes this a sensible starting point. The researchers now plan on pushing research on with a much larger study, so finger’s crossed we see the same kind of developments.

But why are the results so promising when previously Alzheimer’s has seemed such an insurmountable problem? Bredesen believes that the complexity of the disease means that therapies concentrating on a single factor just aren’t sufficient. “Imagine having a roof with 36 holes in it, and your drug patched one hole very well – the drug may have worked, a single ‘hole’ may have been fixed, but you still have 35 other leaks, and so the underlying process may not be affected much,” he explained. “We think addressing multiple targets within the molecular network may be additive, or even synergistic, and that such a combinatorial approach may enhance drug candidate performance, as well.”

Images: Eva Van Ostade and Ann used under Creative Commons

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