Scientists are optimistic that finding the cure for Alzheimer’s—a disease currently afflicting 5 million people in the United States alone—may be within reach. This sentiment might seem unrealistic when you look at the statistics—only about 1% of scientific discoveries lead to medicine that is used by patients—but forward thinking scientists remind us to remember where we started.
Until recently, the only way to determine whether someone had Alzheimer’s was through an autopsy. Now, however, positron-emission tomography (PET) scanning is able to determine whether patients have the amyloid plaque build-up on their brains that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to PET scans, a less costly and more timely method shows promise and is currently being investigated through experimental studies for a blood test that may be able to determine the presence of the disease.
Imaging technology has made great advancements in treating Alzheimer’s by not only diagnosing the disease sooner so it can be treated earlier, but also contributing to the success of clinical studies. Some drugs used in the studies work by binding to and removing the proteins that build up on the brain and cause memory loss. If a patient is misdiagnosed and given the drug, however, its effects can actually harm the patient and have a negative impact on research results. Therefore, accurately diagnosing patients with Alzheimer’s is essential to finding a cure.
Research has also proven what scientists have suspected—that Alzheimer’s disease can be present in a person for a long time without noticeable signs, as long as 20 years before memory loss becomes evident. By confirming this suspicion, scientists can focus on finding treatments for earlier stages of the disease.