Friday, November 20, 2009

Alzheimer's cure is 'Star Trek' technology

- New research into Alzheimer's disease has started to focus on preventing the disease, as opposed to treating it, but a cure is still well off into the future, according to the vice president of medical and scientific relations for the National Alzheimer's Association.

Scientists and researchers are trying to find ways to pre-diagnose people, effectively letting them plan for a mental decline in old age, but pre-diagnosing someone for the disease isn't easy, Dr. William Thies said Thursday night at the Charleston Civic Center as part of the Alzheimer's Association West Virginia Chapter's annual education conference.

Doctors don't know what actually causes the disease, he said, although they do agree on the general definition that it is the dying of brain cells that leads to a loss of memory and other cognitive functions, as well as behavior problems in old age.

Many families have a history of Alzheimer's, but Thies said that genetic makeup isn't always the best indicating factor.

"Family history can contribute to your chances of getting Alzheimer's," he said, "but genetics is only a small part of the story."

People can have two parents and a sibling with the disease and not develop any symptoms of their own, he said.

There are up to 12 genetic markers in the body that indicate a person's likelihood of developing diseases. Thies said studying these genetic markers could give scientists an indication if there is a way to tell if someone is pre-disposed for Alzheimer's.

Finding a cure would involve three parts, he said. The first two are stopping the progression of the disease and putting back the brain cells that have already died. Thies said those "aren't that far off in the future."

However, the final step to a full cure and recovery -- replacing the memories someone lost after developing the disease -- "is really 'Star Trek' technology and we won't be able to see anything like that for years," he said.