Roughly 5½ million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, a disease that ravages sufferers’ memories and, ultimately, stops their bodies from performing basic functions. There’s no cure, and not much that patients and their caregivers can do to stop the progression — but according to Joseph Jebelli, a neuroscientist and author of “In Pursuit of Memory: The Fight Against Alzheimer’s” (Little, Brown; out Oct. 31), hope is on the way. He estimates there will be a medication to prevent the disease within the next 10 to 20 years.
“[The idea is to push] the disease back, by developing a drug that we can give to someone years before they start experiencing symptoms,” Jebelli tells The Post. Researchers can use biomarkers — certain signs of the disease visible in spinal fluid and blood — to determine who may need early treatment.
“It will change the course of the disease, pushing it back to the point where not only do they not experience any symptoms, but they’re dying naturally,” Jebelli says.
Delaying the onset of the disease would have a huge impact on the number of cases. According to a 2007 study from Johns Hopkins, Jebelli writes, “if Alzheimer’s could be delayed for only one year, there would be 9 million fewer people with the disease by 2050.” Scientists at USC predict that a five-year delay “would effectively halve the globe’s 46 million [dementia] sufferers, saving health care services approximately $600 billion a year,” he writes.
It sounds simple enough, but progress has been slow in the 111 years since the disease was first discovered.
While Alzheimer’s-like symptoms such as memory loss and agitation have been documented throughout history, the disease wasn’t addressed until 1906, when a German doctor, Alois Alzheimer — for whom the disease was named in 1910 — identified familiar patterns in his aging patients and noticed changes in a patient’s brain tissue.
But he couldn’t figure out what was causing the memory loss, and in the decades after Alzheimer’s discovery, scientists were baffled as to what caused the brain degeneration.
“It’s a much trickier disease to understand in many ways, because with cancer and infectious diseases, there’s a very obvious target,” says Jebelli. “But with Alzheimer’s, the brain cells seem to just be withering away.”
And while doctors did their best to diagnose patients with the condition, which is the most common form of dementia, the disease has been underreported partly due to stigma, which stems from a fear of the disease — and the hopelessness that comes with it.
‘It will change the course of the disease, pushing it back to the point where not only do they not experience any symptoms, but they’re dying naturally.’
– neuroscientist Joseph Jebelli
Experiencing that fear inspired Jebelli’s research: When he was 12, his beloved grandfather, Abbas, began to show signs of the disease. Jebelli and his family were stunned. An Iranian property developer, Abbas woke up at 5 every morning to hike, never drank and ate copious amounts of fish and vegetables. He passed away in 2012 from pneumonia, after years in decline.
“It was interesting, because my granddad did live a very healthy lifestyle, and he still succumbed to Alzheimer’s. And a lot of the patients I spoke to as well were very healthy and very well-educated,” says Jebelli. But he says that a healthy diet, exercise and mental stimulation — like reading and socializing — have indeed been shown to fight off the symptoms of the disease.
“When you look at the science and the population studies, there is still a very strong connection between all these lifestyle factors and reducing your risk of Alzheimer’s,” he says. Jebelli points out that cardiovascular disease, for example, has been linked to Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.
Those same studies have helped scientists get a better grasp on what causes the severe memory loss, and moved the neuroscience community closer to an effective treatment.
“We now understand that Alzheimer’s seems to be caused by these proteins called plaques and tangles [in the brain],” he says. “What we’re doing now is actually targeting the underlying biology of the disease, instead of just targeting the symptoms, which is what scientists were doing [before].”
A better understanding of the disease means a growing understanding of how to treat it.
“The drug trials so far have actually been quite disastrous,” says Jebelli — likely because drugs were given to patients when their symptoms were too advanced. But those failures gave scientists a better understanding of how the disease unfolds, and forced them to develop methods to predict a person’s odds of getting the disease
Researchers are also looking at ways to reverse symptoms that have already arisen.
“Doctors are doing amazing things with [human] stem cells,” says Jebelli, including reprogramming them into brain cells that are then implanted in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. This treatment will require more research and time, but Jebelli says it’s “still a possibility.”
Given the potential of stem cells and drugs that could prevent the disease from developing, Jebelli is quite optimistic about the future of Alzheimer’s prevention and treatment: “We’re at the beginning of the end.”