Alzheimer's disease is the number one public health problem in the developed world, with approximately 35 million cases worldwide. In Canada it represents a very expensive problem, estimated to cost 50 million dollars a day. In the time it takes you to read this post, there will be two more people diagnosed with Alzheimer's in Canada. As there are currently no approved treatments that affect the disease itself, there is an urgent need to keep our heads down and power through (bonus points for whoever can identify this reference in the comments) to find a cure.
The first "official" patient with Alzheimer's disease was a 51-year old woman named Auguste Deter. She was examined by Alois Alzheimer in 1901. She suffered from impaired memory, aphasia (a language disorder) and disorientation. Alzheimer kept meticulous records: we have a very detailed description of Auguste's condition, and even a sample of her handwriting (see picture). Even though the condition was described in great detail, Alois Alzheimer did not know what had caused Auguste's disease. Today, as one of the researchers at the seminar pointed out, we still don't know what causes Alzheimer's disease, but on a much higher level.
We do know that one of the main culprits in Alzheimer's disease is amyloid beta (Abeta), a protein that everybody's brain makes. In the brain of an Alzheimer's patient, though, too much of this protein is being made, and it aggregates in toxic chunks called plaques. The researchers present at the seminar predicted that vaccines against these plaques will fail. However, there are several candidate drugs that could prevent or treat these plaques in clinical trials right now.
Interestingly, researchers are also studying naturally occurring compounds: one of the speakers talked about his research looking at whether natural extracts can block the formation of plaques in a "petri dish" model of Alzheimer's (brain cells grown in a dish). He finds that ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, cranberry, rhubarb, blueberry, pomegranate and blackberry all help prevent the aggregation of Abeta. However, he warns that at this point, it is not practical to focus on eating these foods because the concentrations used in the lab are just not possible to recreate in a diet.
Beyond the molecular and biological underpinnings of Alzheimer's disease, researchers are also addressing the inevitable changes the world will need to undergo to accommodate a growing prevalence of dementia. For example, one speaker pointed out that many public places such as airports and even hospitals are very difficult to navigate for cognitively healthy people: this represents a true disservice to people with Alzheimer's disease. Efforts are also being made to engage the public (as to avoid more bad news like this one), and to provide resources for caregivers (such as the fantastic First Link initiative).
Overall, I'm disappointed to report that I didn't learn of any magical intervention that will rid us of Alzheimer's disease, but it's comforting to know that there is a big research community out there who is taking this problem very seriously and who is tackling it from many different angles.