Making Sense of the Latest Alzheimer’s Research

With a keen and critical eye, you can tell if that trending Alzheimer’s story is a major breakthrough.

Medically reviewed in January 2020

You’re a pro at skimming: You check multiple news feeds daily, glancing at headlines and reading just enough of each major story to stay informed. And when you come across a “game changing” Alzheimer’s disease (AD) breakthrough, you might share the article with interested friends and family, or head to the store for the latest food with Alzheimer’s fighting powers.

“This is a major problem we’re facing in the Alzheimer’s world because we haven’t had any major new therapies in the last 16 years,” says Upinder Singh, MD, a doctor specializing in geriatrics at Southern Hills Hospital and Kindred Healthcare in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Science is slow. Progress is built on small, incremental steps," explains Dr. Singh. "But researchers, doctors and the media are all enthusiastic. Because of that enthusiasm, tiny steps are often called ‘major leaps’ or ‘breakthroughs.’ But be careful: don’t let the hype and hope outweigh reality,” 

Where Alzheimer’s research is today
There are presently five drugs on the U.S. market that can temporarily improve Alzheimer’s symptoms. But they can’t cure or stop the disease from getting worse over time.

Most of the drugs that are still being tested—and haven’t yet hit the market—focus on fixing, or “targeting” the brain changes that cause Alzheimer’s. Since there are a number of brain changes involved, some researchers believe that a “cure” might mean finding the right combination of targeted meds. As these new drugs go through each phase of research, small victories might attract big media attention.

As much as there are victories, there are setbacks as well, not from drug trials that have failed, but from fewer drug trials in the works. In January 2018, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it plans to shutter its research efforts to discover new Alzheimer’s drugs.

Pfizer explained its decision in a statement emailed to NPR, stating that after a comprehensive review, “we have made the decision to end our neuroscience discovery and early development efforts and re-allocate [spending] to those areas where we have strong scientific leadership and that will allow us to provide the greatest impact for patients.”

Pfizer certainly isn’t the first to pullback its efforts. Alzheimer’s is a difficult disease to treat, let alone cure. Some other pharmaceutical companies that have spent billions of dollars in research have stepped back as drug trials that held great hope failed.

Read past the headlines
When Alzheimer’s studies make the front page, it’s okay to share in the scientists’ excitement. But read the story carefully so you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth all the media buzz. Keep these hard-hitting questions in mind:

How advanced is the research?
Before a drug or a treatment can become available to the public, it has to go through a series of studies to make sure it’s safe and effective for humans. An article may feature a drug that’s in the preclinical phase, which means it’s still being tested on cells or animals. If the animals don’t show any major side effects, it may be approved for clinical trials in humans.

There are four trial phases, each one involving more people than the one before it.

Phase one involves just a small number of volunteers to test the safety of a drug at various doses. If the drug is shown to be safe and effective in phases one through three, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may approve it. After it becomes available on the market, researchers continue to track its safety among thousands of people over long periods of time (phase four).

“In each phase, the benefits have to significantly outweigh the risks for something to be called ‘medicine,’” says Singh. “Many drugs don’t make it because they show positive results in one phase, but don’t pan out later.”

Alzheimer’s drugs have an especially hard time reaching the market because even if a drug improves someone’s brain scans or brain chemistry, it won’t necessarily improve their symptoms.

Did the study look at what the headline’s claiming?
Make sure that the grabby headline matches the study’s findings.

Did the researchers focus on a single Alzheimer’s symptom, but the headline claims there’s a cure?

Did the drug improve patients’ brain scans, but didn’t have a real impact on their memory?

“It’s important to ask if the study has any effect on what you’re trying to treat," says Singh. "There may be a medicine that removes the tangles and plaques—proteins that build up in the brain to cause Alzheimer’s—and that’s very good. But if the drug doesn’t help you think or improve your symptoms, then it’s no use for you.” 

How Alzheimer’s research might work for you
If you read about a clinical trial that you’d like to sign up for—or that sounds like a good match for a friend or loved one—it’s good to start by finding out which company is funding it. Then ask your healthcare provider for more information about the company and the trail, and whether you might be eligible to participate. You can use the Alzheimer’s Association TrialMatch tool to compare trials and choose the best fit, and also find out about trials through the National Institute of Aging’s clinical trials search tool.

With smart research and guidance from your doctor, you or a loved one may be able to take advantage of the exciting advances being made in Alzheimer’s science.

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