The scientist in charge of the nation’s Alzheimer’s disease research brought a message of hope Monday during a visit to the University of Kansas Medical Center.
An infusion of money from Congress, along with technological advances and medical discoveries, “offers us hope that we didn’t have until recent years. ... We have a much better chance of succeeding,” Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging, told a gathering of KU Medical Center faculty and advocates and family members of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain scans are now capable of finding early signs of Alzheimer’s — such as shrinkage of areas of the brain and the buildup of sticky protein fragments called amyloid plaques — years before people show signs of the disease, Hodes said. That is allowing scientists to test drugs and other potential interventions much sooner in the course of the disease, when they may be more effective.
Hodes said scientists also have made great progress in identifying risk factors for Alzheimer’s such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as a “whole family of genes” related to Alzheimer’s. These risk factors, along with signs of early disease discovered on brain scans, will help scientists more precisely identify people to take part in medical studies, he said.
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Hodes spent the day at KU Medical Center, at the invitation of U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, touring its Alzheimer’s research facilities in Fairway and at its main Kansas City, Kan., campus. KU is among 31 medical centers with an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s disease center.
Some KU Alzheimer’s researchers are looking at what role exercise may play in preventing or forestalling the disease’s development. In one recent study, researchers found that in older adults who don’t have signs of Alzheimer’s, as little as 75 minutes of brisk walking per week can help keep minds sharp.
Other researchers at KU are studying why metabolic energy in the brain decreases with age and, in particular, with Alzheimer’s disease. Finding the reasons may lead to ways to reverse the decline.
Nationwide, research into Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia is being buoyed this year by a $350 million increase in federal funding, bringing the total to $936 million. Hodes called the increase “historically extraordinary.” The additional money is part of a $2 billion boost to the budget of the National Institutes of Health, the first significant increase in the NIH budget in many years. The National Institute on Aging is part of NIH.
Moran, who supported the budget increase, said it will be easier to motivate people to advocate for further spending on Alzheimer’s research “if we can make clear to people that on the horizon is great hope of treatment, a cure, a delay” of the disease.
But how far off that horizon is, Hodes wouldn’t say.
“We really can’t predict,” he said. “As exciting as things are, we don’t know what the right answers should be. … We don’t know, ultimately, what will be the most effective cure or cures.”