Could a Pill One Day Prevent Alzheimer’s?

These scientists took a different approach — here’s why their study on Alzheimer’s prevention is drawing so much attention.

Someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease about once every minute in the U.S. Often, by the time a person is diagnosed, the disease has already reached its late stage. That’s because the brain changes that cause Alzheimer’s — including the buildup of tau protein clumps, which interrupt brain cell functions and eventually cause the cells to die — happen over many years. Often, there are no outward signs while those changes are taking place.

That’s why a lab study, which found a possible path to an Alzheimer’s prevention pill is attracting so much attention. By focusing on prevention, the team of researchers from Johns Hopkins, Texas Children’s Hospital, and Baylor University are hoping to completely sidestep the brain damage that’s proven so difficult to reverse.

Related: What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s Disease

The study, which appeared in the journal Neuron, successfully lowered levels of tau protein clumps in fruit flies, mice, and human cells. It also prevented neurological damage in the animals.

How did researchers do it? They discovered an enzyme that plays a major role in the buildup of tau clumps. Once they shut off that enzyme, tau levels started going down.

“Targeting the enzyme called NuaK1 reduced tau proteins in the mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease and reduced further brain degeneration,” explains Upinder Singh, MD, a doctor specializing in Geriatrics at Southern Hills Hospital and Kindred Healthcare in Las Vegas, Nevada.

While this is an exciting new approach to Alzheimer’s research — which more often focuses on trying to cure advanced disease — the scientists are still a way off from developing an actual drug. The drug would also have to go through three clinical trial phases, plus receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration before hitting the market.

“We have a long way to go,” says Dr. Singh. “But this study opens another path to finding a medicinal cure for Alzheimer’s.”

Want to learn more about Alzheimer’s research? Follow Sharecare’s What’s the Latest: Alzheimer’s Disease page for fact-checked information on recent developments.

If you’re searching for a clinical trial, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a free TrialMatch tool on their website.

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