There are more tools today to combat memory loss and Alzheimer's than ever before, offering the possibility of early detection. If what is available today in diagnostic screening had been available in the 1980's, former president Ronald Reagan's early signs of Alzheimer's might have been detected and treated with pharmaceuticals which can slow down the progression of the disease. The widely available memory screen is MemCheck, now the world's most popular memory checking service, offered at CognitiveCare.com by Cognitive Labs.

Advances in Alzheimer's treatment
Diagnosis propelled research


June 6, 2004

A year after leaving the presidency, Ronald Reagan had his first series of tests to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Four years later, in 1994, the Reagan family went public with the news that he was suffering from the debilitating brain disease that robs people of memory and the ability to carry out simple tasks.

Since then, the former president's name and his condition have led to a robust interest in Alzheimer's disease, and the research findings in the field have been staggering. When Reagan was first diagnosed, there were no drugs to treat the condition. Today, a handful of federally approved drugs offer modest help in restoring some aspects of memory and dozens of drugs in the research pipeline are being developed to stall the disease.

"The field is moving so fast," said Huntington Potter, an Alzheimer's researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "We can't cure anyone yet, but the promise is there."

Roughly 4 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, and the numbers will grow as people live longer. Most scientists estimate that more than 20 percent of those over 80 will develop symptoms of Alzheimer's, which can begin with mild forgetfulness and end with a person unable to carry out simple tasks.

When Reagan was diagnosed, there were no genes linked to the disease. Today, several genes have been identified for early-onset and late-onset disease. Particular forms of other genes have been found to increase the risk of Alzheimer's. Early gene therapy trials are under way.

"Ten years ago, the prospect of targeting treatment or preventing it would have been laughed at," said Zaven Khachaturian, director of research for the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute, a think tank directed by the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago. Khachaturian spearheaded research on Alzheimer's at the National Institute on Aging in the 1980s and left to develop the Reagan Institute. The presence of certain genes will not explain most Alzheimer's cases and scientists are hard at work trying to find environmental triggers.

Alzheimer's memory loss and behavior changes have been linked to brain damage, starting in the brain's hippocampus and gradually spreading throughout many brain regions. At death, the brains of patients are riddled with sticky plaques in the hippocampus and nearby regions, and neurofibrillary tangles are found inside brain cells themselves. It is thought that the plaques, made up of a substance called beta-amyloid, lead to the death of brain cells, called neurons.

The disease was first diagnosed in 1906 by Germany psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer, who described his first puzzling case of a 52-year-old woman with a bizarre assortment of behavior changes. Her behavior and memory grew progressively worse until she died nearly five years later.

Alzheimer paid careful attention at the autopsy to the atrophy in her brain: It would be the first time any doctor had characterized a brain pathology that was specifically linked to behavior changes. Alzheimer called the disease "pre-senile dementia," and it was actually Dr. Emil Kraepelin, author of the first diagnostic texts classifying mental illnesses, who named the disease after Alzheimer in 1910.

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