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What Does Inflammation Have To Do With Alzheimer's Disease?

March 17, 2020 | in Alzheimer's Diagnosis, What is clinical research?

Author Benedict Albensi, PhD, BCMAS, CRQM
St Boniface Hospital Research Center
Editorial Review Phoebe Stoye, A.B. in Neurobiology, Harvard College
Clinical Review Spencer Hey, PhD
Harvard Center for Bioethics

In 1-2 sentences, describe this Alzheimer's research or breakthrough.

Alzheimer's Disease is the most common type of dementia (read how Alzheimer's is different from other dementias here). Unfortunately, it currently has no cure. However, there are 100 candidate treatments in clinical trial development right now. Over the past decades, most of these new drug development programs have tried to cure or slow the progression of the disease by targeting so-called "amyloid plaques", a toxic protein associated with the pathophysiology of Alzheimer's. But in recent years, some new drug targets have emerged. After it was found that people taking specific types of anti-inflammatory drugs in mid-life had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease, there is now a growing interest in trying to leverage anti-inflammatory approaches to modify the course of the disease.

Why will it be so important and how will it impact patients living with Alzheimer's?

If inflammation turns out to be a major contributor to Alzheimer's Disease and related forms of dementia, then new treatments may prevent, slow, or reverse Alzheimer's Disease and lower your risk for Alzheimer's Disease.

What is the science behind inflammation and Alzheimer's Disease?

Most people are familiar with normal inflammatory responses, such as what we experience when we have a cut or bruise. Typically, the region hurts, is red in color, and swells noticeably. But in time, these symptoms go away and the body region returns to normal. Inflammation is thus all part of our immune response to injury.

However, in some cases, the inflammatory process is not short-lived and continues for many years, such as what is seen in head trauma. This is when inflammation becomes dangerous and can lead to various neurodegenerative diseases. Also, in the case of the brain, we cannot actually see the inflammatory response, as we can with skin lesions, so scientists and clinicians alike are still uncertain about what all of the effects and consequences of brain inflammation might be.

Where are you in development now? What's next?

Drugs that slow or block inflammation may be useful for treating Alzheimer's Disease. However, more research is needed to see if by blocking inflammation we also improve learning and memory, brain functions that are typically impaired in Alzheimer's Disease. Also, since short-term inflammation is necessary for the body to heal, we don't want to completely inhibit this natural immune function, so additional experiments are necessary to make sure that anti-inflammatory approaches strike the right balance of risks and benefits. For example, there will need to be experiments examining the types of brain cells that can be targeted with anti-inflammatory drugs, as well as experiments that measure how long these drugs can be used without putting the body at risk for other diseases. And if these experiments show promise, then scientists will need to determine what specific sites in the brain cells to target so inflammatory processes can be selectively blocked in a safe manner.

How soon do you think this research will be available to patients? An estimate is fine!

It is possible that new treatments are right around the corner -- once some of the scientific problems mentioned above are resolved. But how long? Five years? Ten years? Hopefully we are only 5-10 years away from a new treatment, but research and drug development are highly uncertain enterprises. Editor's Note: Learn more about how Alzheimer's clinical research works.

Where do you think Alzheimer's research is headed in the next few years?

This is an exciting time for neuroscience research. Many new ideas are being tested in laboratories around the world. Very soon we will have better methods, such as blood tests, for diagnosing dementia earlier and with more accuracy. The potential also exists for treating different forms of Alzheimer's Disease and related dementias more specifically. As our understanding of Alzheimer's Disease increases, so will our ability to treat not only Alzheimer's Disease but other age-related disorders such as Type 2 Diabetes and cancer with much greater success.