An essay suggests that Alzheimer's disease is incurable. (Michael Morgenstern / For…)
There's one thing that all Alzheimer's researchers agree on: The mind-robbing illness is heartbreaking. But after three decades of study that have produced neither cure nor medications that significantly slow its progress, some researchers are asking: What if it's not a disease with a cure? What if it's just an unfortunate but inevitable part of aging, along with wrinkly skin, osteoporosis and heart disease?
In a study in the December issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, a research group led by Dr. Ming Chen at the University of South Florida suggests that "tremendous social pressures" have pushed scientists to target Alzheimer's as a curable disease. Despite all the research, however, they say the cause of the condition remains unknown and "there seems no major progress expected any time soon." The researchers are not proposing giving up on treating Alzheimer's. In fact, just the opposite: They believe scientists should refocus efforts from searching for an underlying villainous pathogen to manipulating neurotransmission in the brain. In other words, to deemphasize the quest for a cure and to look instead for effective prevention and treatment that focus on dementia as part of the aging process. They stress the importance of controlling risk factors, such as diabetes and hypertension, that are believed to make people more vulnerable to developing Alzheimer's, and energizing the aging brain through social activities.
As the baby boom generation ages, dementia will become a larger social and healthcare problem. Scientists would be remiss if they weren't constantly reevaluating their mission and direction and reconsidering funding priorities. They should certainly seek more effective treatments for Alzheimer's, and there's every indication that they are. Some leading researchers believe they are, indeed, close to slowing the molecular process at the heart of Alzheimer's. Others note that multiple factors cause the condition, making it "a tough nut to crack," according to Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Minnesota.
Chen, the new study's lead author, says that for years Alzheimer's researchers have been driven by fear of the societal devastation that will be wrought by increasing numbers of dementia sufferers, and that it has led scientists down a path for a cure that doesn't exist. But fear is a powerful and often a rational motivator. It's fine to reexamine priorities. The last thing we want is for researchers to be distracted by the debate or to close off options that let them dare to pursue either a cure or a preventive strategy.
Even the authors of this study say it's reasonable to seek something bold: "Man has landed on the moon; numerous once-incurable diseases have been cured." But they note that none has been a disease that causes senility.
Not yet, anyway.