New research suggests that if identified early, the molecule in the brain that leads to the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease can possibly be removed, which could then result in the reversal of symptoms of dementia.
The findings were a key part of a recent presentation from Dr. William Shankle, a neurologist and program director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorders at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Hospital.
Shankle, who also co-founded the Alzheimer’s Research Center at UC Irvine, delivered the presentation to about 60 community members Nov. 1 at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.
The presentation kicked off November’s Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.
“They presented the first trials that show if you identify people early who have the first molecule that accumulates in Alzheimer’s — amyloids — then you put them on treatments that remove that amyloid from the brain,” Shankle said. “It removes about 50 to 75% of all the amyloid in the brain. They have now followed those people for over four years, and they are continuing to show functional improvement.”
Reversing the loss of function in people with dementia, not simply delaying it, is a significant breakthrough, Shankle said.
This was encouraging news for Cindy Young of Cypress, who attended the presentation because she has elderly parents who’ve been diagnosed with memory loss.
“It was the most informative hour I’ve spent in a really long time,” Young said. “The first thing that set me at ease was realizing that there is treatment to slow the progression because my first reaction was just fear. But knowing that there is hope, that even though it might not be an early catch, there is still potential for slowing the process down and having a quality of life.”
While often associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia is an umbrella term that can occur with several diseases, Shankle said.
Dementia refers to a level of severity that involves the decline of the ability to perform basic tasks a person has been performing for years, the doctor said, such as paying bills, cooking, shopping and managing a business.
“It is a level of severity that many different diseases can cause,” Shankle said. “But since Alzheimer’s accounts for about 60% of all causes of dementia, it’s useful that we focus on that because it illustrates how we can prevent dementia due to other causes as well.”
The brain works by sending electricity from one nerve cell to another. All brain disorders stem from the the failure of these cells to transmit electricity to each other, he said.
So preserving the connection between nerve cells is the key to preventing dementia.
The conditions that lead to dementia may be present in the brain for decades before the onset of any symptoms, Shankle said.
Recognizing these conditions is the focus of the doctor’s research.
“We have a pretty big window to identify Alzheimer’s Disease while people are functioning normally,” Shankle said. “If we can do that, then we don’t have as much amyloid to remove and we can preserve that normality of function.”
Mentally stimulating activities can also have a positive effect on staving off beta amyloids, he said, especially if they are performed regularly.
In one study, researchers measured the level of amyloid in the brains of 20-year olds and of people over 65 who engaged in high levels of lifelong learning.
The amyloid levels of both groups was the same, the study showed.
The people who did not engage in lifelong learning had the same amyloid levels as individuals with dementia from Alzheimer’s, Shankle said.
“So there is a direct association between the amount of lifelong learning and the level of amyloid in people’s brains,” he said.
Because of her age, Virginia Richards, 71, of Santa Ana wanted to attend Shankle’s presentation to educate herself on warning signs.
“I just wanted to know more about what to look for,” Richards said. “I didn’t realize what the research had been producing … that there are actually ways to stop Alzheimer’s for a while, even reverse it, which was news to me. That made me feel very good.”