The Alzheimer’s Research Paradigm

If you’ve every studied philosophy of science, you’ll recognize that current research in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease is battling paradigms. The funny thing is, the Alzheimer’s field hasn’t even reached the level of robust theory, yet there is strife in the ranks of researchers fighting over the direction inquiry should take:

“Kill the amyloid plaque“Beta amyloid is a protein fragment snipped from an amyloid precursor protein (APP). In a healthy brain, these protein fragments are broken down and eliminated. In Alzheimer’s disease, the fragments accumulate to form hard, insoluble plaques.”!”
“No, viva le beta amyloid“Most people think abeta is junk,” a toxic byproduct of other activity in the brain, said Rudolph Tanzi, director of genetics and aging at Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease. “This says tread carefully. It may play a normal, essential role in the brain and be part of the way the brain protects itself.”!”
“Forget amyloid. It takes tauThe appearance of elevated tau in CSF is important, but merely a reflection of the disease process. What is not at all touched upon and in fact routinely neglected in the press, is that the tau protein drives neurodegeneration in a very direct way, much more so than the beta-amyloid protein, which is the target of the cited study. In fact, without abnormalities of tau there is no Alzheimer’s disease. Many older individuals develop beta-amyloid deposits in their brains and never experience Alzheimer’s disease, another aspect generally not mentioned. Conversely, if only tau is abnormal, and beta-amyloid is not involved, there is always a terminal neurological disease. to tangle.”
“Ha! The biomarkerThe thing with biomarkers is that they only work/make sense if the biological processes behind a disease are fully or at least largely understood. Only then is it possible to choose a proxy (the biomarker) for the final result (optimally a cured patient). Since the processes behind Alzheimer’s (more generally in the CNS) are badly understood this area is not well suited for biomarkers emperor has no clothes!”
“Wait. Isn’t it all about insulin resistance?A new short-term trial of intranasal insulin in Alzheimer’s patients and people with mild cognitive decline showed benefits on certain memory and functioning tests
“Nix all the above. Just get quality sleep,“Levels of the protein increased in mice during the night — when mice are mostly awake — and fell during the day when mice sleep. The longer the mice stayed awake, the more amyloid-beta levels increased, the team found. The team also measured amyloid-beta levels in the cerebral spinal fluid of some healthy young people and found the same pattern observed in the mice — amyloid-beta levels increase when people are awake and fall during sleep.” and you’ll be fine.”

If you think this is funny, these basic statistics will sober you up:
* As of 2010, there are 5.4 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s
* Almost half the people over 85 have Alzheimer’s
* When the baby boomers come of Alzheimer’s age, the costs of care for this disease alone will cripple Medicare and Medicaid
* Federal funding for research into a cure is dropping fast
* YOU will be paying for either your own care or for that of a loved one if a cure is not found. And YOU will either be grossly neglected when this disease hits you, or you will die the slow death of stress from caregiving for someone else.

Bottom line: research into Alzheimer’s—its cause(s), treatment, and cure—is alarmingly urgent and terribly underfunded.

There are plenty of people out there who believe we shouldn’t put money into research at all, because so far nothing has been found to stay the course of “Alzheimer’s” dementia, and the whole drug industryAnother new frontier for drug companies’ illicit profits. Vaccines, invented “syndromes” and now, allegedly predicting who will come down with what disease and medicating them for decades before the possible advent of that disease. With no certainty the disease will manifest this is pure sham. And the pharmas will profit double from their con job — think of the so-called “mind drugs” that will be prescribed to mediate the untold psychological effects on people given future death sentences regarding this or that disease! is just a ploy to line the pockets of the pharmaceutical fat cats. If you’re in that group, you can stop reading this now. If, however, you would really like to see your Mom or Dad or Yourself able to have a meaningful conversation with your loved ones and know whom you’re talking to—hopefully for the rest of your life—read on, because the question isn’t whether or not to research. The question is where do we put our research dollars?

Not a simple answer when you consider that the reigning paradigm for Alzheimer’s research is serious question.

Let me explain with recent findings from my own readings:

A couple weeks ago I attended a Cure Alzheimer’s Fund webinar presented by Dr. Rudy Tanzi (of Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease) on Alzheimer’s research and drug development.

Beta Amyloid: Clues From Our Genes

Dr. Tanzi’s group is in the “clues from our genes” pool (looking at the genes as a starting point rather than, say, looking at diet first). The dominant belief in this pool up until recently is that beta amyloid plaque accumulation in the brain, followed always by tau tangles, are the two main biomarkers for Alzheimer’s Disease. That is, where there is Alzheimer’s, there is an overabundance of beta amyloid plaque and destruction caused by tau in the brain. Also, a higher load of plaque correlates with a higher degree of dementia (see slide from webinar). Plus, as this accumulation progresses and moves to different parts of the brain, there is a parallel manifestation of symptoms.

The connection seems pretty obvious. And Dr. Tanzi certainly has the credentials: back in the 80’s when he was studying Down’s Syndrome, he realized they had isolated the gene responsible for amyloid “plaque” deposits in the brain, and—given that all Down’s Syndrome sufferers end up with Alzheimer’s—thought to make a link between this gene and other cases of Alzheimer’s. From there it was one success after another, with Dr. Tanzi participating in the discovery of three of the four known gene mutations causing early-onset Alzheimer’s (these are the genes that guarantee you will get Alzheimer’s). Granted, early-onset AD accounts for only 5% of Alzheimer’s cases, but it does give weight to the conviction that Alzheimer’s has a genetic link. More recent studies looking at family history suggest that up to 80% of Alzheimer’s cases are genetically influenced (see slide from Tanzi’s presentation).

The presentation is convincing enough until you start reading the commentary in the field and start learning that current direction of research into the causes of Alzheimer’s“It’s one reason why the so-called amyloid hypothesis, which holds that to cure Alzheimer’s you have to curtail Aβ, is in question these days: There’s little evidence so far that fighting Aβ leads to a functional difference to patients.” is highly questioned.

Researchers coming on the scene today, for example, would argue that the plaque theory is circular reasoning. You can’t say that plaque leads to Alzheimer’s if you first define Alzheimer’s as “dementia with plaque.” And when your theory states that plaque accumulation leads to Alzheimer’s, the automatic null hypothesis is that where there is plaque (in copious amounts) you will always find dementia, and when plaque is cleared, dementia will go away.

But this has not born out. It is now known that “roughly one-third of all elderly adults have such plaques in their brains yet function normally.” It has also been proven that the elimination of beta amyloid plaque (achieved by the “Alzheimer’s vaccine”) does not cure dementia.

Thus the paradigm shake-up. Why continue with the biomarker research when the facts don’t bear an airtight connection? Is the “clues from our genes” group too heavily invested financially and psychologically in this line of research (as some suggest) to give it up as dead?

Dr. Tanzi responds to these fears in his recent presentation. He didn’t use the word per se, but nuance was the main come-back. All theories undergo refinement, and this plaque-causes-dementia theory is no exception. Looking at the genes may have lead to wrong conclusions in the past, but there are still some pretty interesting clues to follow going forward.

Here is a crude rendition of the protein-level pathology in Alzheimer’s:

beta amyloid in Alzheimer's pathology

Beta amyloid (Aβ) is cut off from its precursor protein; Aβ links to other ab in small clusters; Aβ kills nerve synapses; Aβ accumulates into plaques

For the past twenty years, research has focused on improving the symptoms of dementia by eliminating the final clusters of beta amyloid (plaques). Looking at the little diagram above, different drugs targeted the beta amyloid at different points on the linear progression toward plaque: Flurizan targeted the process that snipped the Aβ off its precursor protein; Alzemed tried to block the aggregation of Aβ; Dimebon was designed to protect the neurons from Aβ; one drug successfully immunized the brain against Aβ (resulting in clearance of plaque from the brain, inflammation in the brain, and progressive dementia); and finally, drugs were developed (Aricept and Namenda) to act at the symptomatic level.

None has had any significant effect“No treatment is available to slow or stop the deterioration of brain cells in Alzheimer’s disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved five drugs that temporarily slow worsening of symptoms for about six to 12 months, on average, for about half of the individuals who take them.” on the brain’s function in memory tests.

Tanzi’s response? Perhaps the reason drug trials fail is that the potency of the drug is off—either too weak or too strong—and funding for a subsequent trial is cut off. Or perhaps researchers need to stare at the diagram a little longer and find out whether beta amyloid needs to be left to do some mission, then cleared before it wreaks havoc on the synapses.

Which is exactly what happened with Dr. Tanzi—a little stroll through the lab, a light-bulb moment, and Tanzi discovers that beta amyloid kills bacteria and yeast like nobody’s business. Beta amyloid is a good guy? The plaques themselves are just “a field of bullets” left over from some major battle?

Definitely worth an investigation. A new direction.

To Fund Or Not to Fund

So it turns out that looking at clues from the genes is not a paralyzing avenue of research after all. Is the paradigm really dead, or just needing refinement? In the new direction of Alzheimer’s research, Dr. Tanzi’s findings have lead to a more recent drug (PBT2) that takes the “antibiotic” role of beta amyloid into account as it tries to clear its toxic leftovers. Do we pull the plug on funding just when the story is getting really interesting?

The competition out there is fierce. You would think from some of the stinging accusations aimed at the “old school” research that funding for groups such as Tanzi’s should be questioned. Yet, as the webinar pointed out, “the vast majority of our knowledge about AD and AD drug discovery has been based on studies of the four known AD genes over the past two decades.” That’s old school success.

On the down side, “about 70% of AD genetics is unexplained by the four known AD genes.” On the further down side, it’s going to take A LOT of funding to find the genetic culprits for the rest of Alzheimer’s cases. And genetics is still only one of several approaches to studying this disease! (Besides, paradigms don’t die until a better one supersedes it, and there is no airtight theory out there yet).

Do we put all our eggs in one basket? What if there aren’t enough eggs to spread around to the different baskets?

Frankly, I don’t know the answer to this question.

There are a couple good reasons I think the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund group is worth supporting, though. One reason is the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund website itself. The Internet has plenty of faults, but it also has the advantage of open criticism. If you look at the comments sections of one of the papers put out by Tanzi’s group on the Alzheimer’s Forum, you’ll see an open debate. It’s free collaboration. It’s crowdsourcing at its best. I think it multiplies the value of your funding dollar.

Another reason is that I’ve suspected my own mother’s caseStay tuned for a post on this topic to be of possible bacterial/fungal originAt a speculative level, one alternative explanation would be that some cases of AD could result from a persistent CSF infection, or from a transient infection that went away but engendered a permanent Aβ response and its attendant immune modulation. and am dying to see what this group finds in their new line of research. The only thing I fear is the psychological barrier to this new approach.

A Taboo Research Project?

To be specific: the two agents being considered by Tanzi’s group as possible aggressors in the beta amyloid battle are Chlamydia and Candida Albicans. But looking at Candida Albicans as a possible cause of anything is TABOO in mainstream medicine. Just browse the comments section of a recent article in the New York Times about Candida Albicans, and you’ll see what I mean.

Will Tanzi’s group have the courage to fight all the enemies of research at the same time: tainted motives (the desire for personal glory), psychological entrapment (continuing in a line of research simply because it’s been going on for so long), and mainstream opinion about what is acceptable research (we do not look at X)?

I guess it’s going to take a lot of money to find out. Which brings us back to the basket issue.

Do we have to duplicate Alzheimer’s research at the Federal and State levels? The state of Texas, for example (being one of the top three states that will go broke paying for Alzheimer’s care in the future), is spreading its research egg money into several baskets:
* Science
* Prevention and Brain Health
* Disease Management
* Caregiving
* Infrastructure.

Why repeat this with every state, plus private groups on the side? Is there a way to get more collaboration between research groups? The well of needed funding is infinitely deep, so why are we digging multiple wells?

I guess part of the answer is that individual motivation for research (even if it is for personal glory) is the strongest kind you can find, and therefore the best engine for finding a cure. And likewise, education plus individual conviction will drive donations. There is certainly enough information available at one’s fingertips to give no one who is interested in a cure an excuse to sit on the sidelines!

So what will you do?

Because where there is a will, there will be a way to end the increasingly long goodbye.

For further reference:
Beta-Amyloid: An Antibiotic? (with a slew of interesting comments)
Alzheimer’s Brain Tangles Offer Clue To Worsening
Alzheimer’s Disease: No End to Dementia
New Potential Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease Detected
Alzheimer’s Scary Link to Diabetes
Follow the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride journal
An video report on several intriguing theories of Alzheimer’s.