In December, the 21st Century Cures Act, passed by Congress and signed by former President Obama, allotted $3 billion over a 10-year period in funding the scientific probe of brain conditions and precision medicine. This is deemed a boost in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, which currently faces a 99 percent failure rate and other blows in research.

But do we actually stand a chance against the memory-robbing condition that now affects 5 million in the United States and emerges as the country’s sixth leading cause of mortality? Decades of billions of dollars after, not a single drug has been produced to reverse the illness.

The Matter With Amyloid Plaques

In an extensive report, Kaiser News delved on a major recent setback in the battle against Alzheimer’s. Pharmaceutical Eli Lilly revealed from its late-stage clinical trial that the drug solanezumab failed to substantially slow the progress of the disease.

The main hypothesis behind the medication: drugs can attack amyloid plaques building up in the brain in the case of Alzheimer’s, which some experts believe have a hand over the condition.

Hopes are now pinned on another anti-amyloid drug called aducanumab, produced by Biogen, and which improved cognitive decline in a small sample during early trial.

According to Eli Lilly spokesperson Nicole Herbert, they are doing more work to test the hypothesis, as the trial explored only one technique in removing amyloid.

"Rumors of the death of the amyloid hypothesis have been around for many years, and they're probably premature," agreed Keith Fargo of Alzheimer’s Association, noting that these plaques seem to accumulate 15 to 20 years before the first signs of dementia. The key then is earlier intervention, he said.

Others are eyeing another potential Alzheimer’s culprit, called tau, a protein that serves as another prominent marker of the condition as it creates “tangles” in the brain.

At present, a mere five drugs have been FDA-approved for Alzheimer’s treatment, and they mostly alleviate symptoms such as confusion and memory loss. Since 2003, no new treatment has achieved federal approval, and clinical trials have had a grim 99 percent failure rate.

Other Potential Solutions

On the other hand, non-pharmaceutical options include exercising and pursuing a healthier diet to avoid getting the disease in later life. There’s the buzz around eating a Mediterranean diet to help reduce age-related brain shrinkage, although the link has only been made with dementia and not really Alzheimer’s.

The EXERT trial at Wake Forest University, too, currently tests how high-intensity aerobic exercise affects patients of mild cognitive decline, who are enrolled in YMCA fitness programs.

Alzheimer’s could also be rooted in deficiencies in nutrients such as vitamin A. Early this year, University of British Columbia researchers saw that biochemical reactions giving rise to the disease could start as soon as pregnancy or just after birth if the newborn does not get enough vitamin A.

To experts like Ron Petersen, Alzheimer’s research director at Mayo Clinic, the only realistic goals right now are to slow the progression and delay the onset. What happens to research then remains to be seen in the coming years.

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