Even though Alzheimer’s currently affects 600,000 patients in Italy, 5 million in America and 47 million world-wide, more and more pharmaceutical companies are giving up on trying to find a cure due to the amount of inconclusive experiments. Yet research and experimentation are now shifting from finding a cure to preventing Alzheimer ’s altogether.
The Failure of Pharmacological Experimentation
Alzheimer’s is a neurological, pathological degenerative disease that affects the brain. It is a disease that gradually worsens, beginning with memory loss, impaired movement, loss of the ability to speak and finally difficulty in recognizing people and things.
The numbers are high. According to the Italian National Institute of Health (Istituto Superiore di Sanità), nearly 600,000 people suffer from the disease in Italy alone. Moreover, this number is expected to rise greatly given the aging population and that longevity in Italy is higher than in other countries, with 22% of the population over 60 years of age.
Research is still being done to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s. What is certain is that harmful substances accumulate inside the brain of people affected by the disease. One of these substances is amyloid, a protein present in all brains, but which, under normal conditions, is cut into fragments by “enzymatic scissors” that then dissolve. Under pathological conditions, instead, these “scissors” cut in the wrong place, forming fragments that clump together and form plaques that kill brain cells. For years, the most popular therapy was to give patients medicine against amyloid, but its ineffectiveness is the reason for which many pharmaceutical cases abandoned experimentation on it. The crux of the problem was experimentation on patients who were already diagnosed with the disease. “Waiting for symptoms to appear in order to treat Alzheimer’s is like waiting for someone to have a heart attack before treating hypertension. At that point, lowering blood pressure doesn’t heal the heart”, explains Giovanni Frisoni, neurologist at Geneva University Hospitals and at Irccs Fatebenefratelli of Brescia.
A Shift in the Paradigm: Early Diagnosis
Interest in study and research, has thus shifted to experimenting on people with minor ailments that preclude the disease. Going beyond the pharmacological realm, providing early diagnosis seems to have become one of the most effective instruments in preventing Alzheimer ’s or slowing down its degeneration. Early diagnosis is possible through specific diagnostic exams. The most important include:
- A thorough clinical and neuropsychological evaluation;
- Analysis of abnormal protein levels in cerebrospinal fluid;
- A brain PET (positron emission tomography) scan that shows the eventual presence of amyloid protein accumulation inside the brain;
- An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) of the head to identify regions with brain atrophy.
The PET is particularly important. “We can use PET imaging”, explains David Geldmacher MD, director of the Division of Memory Disorders and Behavioral Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital, “to observe the brain of a person with symptoms such as memory loss or dementia to see if amyloid accumulation has already begun. This does not tell us when symptoms of dementia could begin, but it does indicate a higher risk of Alzheimer’s“.
More and more groundbreaking products are being developed to facilitate early diagnosis. For example, The City of Health, Molinette Hospital in Turin is the leader of the International Project My-AHA that tests experimental devices including eye glasses that are able to record body and head movements in order to assess a person’s balance, mattress bands to assess the quality of sleep and apps-games to test memory, orientation and the ability to resolve different types of problems.
Preventing Alzheimer ’s Is Possible
Preventing Alzheimer’s is even more important than an early diagnosis of the disease and more and more studies are focusing on just that. Unlike other parts of our body, our brain doesn’t have spare parts and must be fed with blood that is rich in oxygen and nourishing substances, avoiding excess fats, sugars, proteins from red meat and other substances that are generally known to be harmful for the entire body. A healthy lifestyle can slow down the aging of the brain, reducing the risk of dementia. The Mediterranean diet is an effective ally with its wide use of olive oil, oily fish, fruit and vegetables. It is just as important to keep the brain active, cultivating hobbies, social relations and travelling. It is statistically proven that people with a low level of instruction and/or little social activity are at a greater risk of contracting disease. The following is a very brief summary of the main ways to prevent Alzheimer’s:
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Be physically active
- Excercise the brain
- Maintain meaningful and gratifying social relationships
- Don’t smoke
- Avoid risk factors for vascular disorders, like high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.
The New Frontier of Artificial Intelligence in Preventing Alzheimer’s
Artificial intelligence, already used in several fields of medicine, is now being experimented on Alzheimer’s as well. Dr. Marianna La Rocca at the University of Bari recently conducted a research project that shows how artificial intelligence is able to detect the disease ten years before symptoms appear due to an algorithm that is able to identify characteristics of Alzheimer’s on an MRI better than humans can. If data from the project is confirmed, it will be a revolutionary discovery in preventing Alzheimer’s.