Researchers grapple for Alzheimer's cure

6/4/2014

By Anita Creamer

By Anita Creamer

The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (MCT) — Gasps were audible as the images flashed before a gathering of scientists at a recent UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center pathology conference. On the screen before them were photos of a brain severely wasted with age, with what looked like silver rivers of atrophy cutting deeply through the tissue. Even for the experts, it can be shocking to see the damage that Alzheimer's disease inflicts on the aging brain.

What can stop the devastation of Alzheimer's? Without better answers from researchers, the degenerative brain disease — already the nation's sixth leading cause of death — will be diagnosed in as many as 16 million aging baby boomers by 2050. Unchecked, it could rob millions of their memories and lives, their past and future, even as it threatens to overwhelm the health care system.

Against the setting of this looming public health crisis, scientists devote themselves to diagnosis and research along the third-floor hallways of the Lawrence J. Ellison Ambulatory Care Center on the leafy UC Davis Medical Center campus. They are unlikely warriors on the front lines: the neurologists and neuropsychologists, the project scientists and brain-imaging whiz kids and dedicated clinic staff who are fascinated by the science of the aging brain but frustrated by how little public recognition there seems to be that a crisis is at hand.

But progress is slow: Prevention and cure are probably many years away. Miracles are in short supply; so is funding. And for every answer, it seems, there's another question.

"Do I find it discouraging that we're no closer to an answer?" asked DeCarli, 58, who has been the center's director for the past decade. "No, no, no. Sure, I'd like us to get an answer, but who's going to do the work?

"We can lick this thing. It's just finding the path."

The process of searching for answers begins in the Alzheimer's Disease Center's quiet third-floor clinic, a place of hope and fear. Here, patients and research participants are tested and diagnosed. The staff members offer visitors a cup of coffee and candy from a plentifully stocked bowl. Newcomers, fearful of the news that could await them, are often too nervous to accept.

"They're scared when they first come through that door," said patient-care coordinator Rebekha Alfaro.

Referred by concerned primary-care physicians or family members, about five patients visit the clinic each Wednesday for testing or follow-up diagnosis. They huddle with their family members in the conference room, and they listen to the words they don't want to hear. Sometimes, it's DeCarli who breaks the news; sometimes, it's the center's associate director, Sarah Farias.

Treatment remains limited. DeCarli prescribes only Aricept and Nemenda to people with Alzheimer's. Those medications can help slow memory loss in patients in the early stages of the disease but not always, and not with other forms of dementia.

Alzheimer's first affects the areas of the brain that control memory, planning and spatial relationships. The point of testing is to differentiate between normal aging _ occasionally losing track of dates or names, for example, and occasionally misplacing items — and the steadfast march toward severe memory loss that characterizes Alzheimer's.

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