The History of Alzheimer's Part II: Early Research to Present Day Efforts
In the years following Alois’s Alzheimer’s death, research into Alzheimer’s Disease slowed and nearly halted. I would attribute this to the state of the world in 1915. Scientific research was limited, information on research and discoveries did not travel quickly, and Alzheimer’s Disease would mostly remain unknown for decades after its discovery. It wasn’t until technology progressed that research into the disease was continued and progress began to be made.
One of these advancements was the invention of the electron microscope in 1931. The electron microscope was created by two German Scientists, physicist Ernst Ruska and electrical engineer Max Knoll. The microscope uses a concentrated beam of electrons that increase the ability of a microscope to magnify by 1 million times. This allows scientists to examine microorganisms, individual cells, brain matter, etc. This pioneering advancement has led to the modern microscopes used in research labs all over the world.
Due to its impressive magnification and improvement over time, scientists were able to identify Beta-Amyloid in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient in 1984. The discovery of Beta-Amyloid was one of the most significant Alzheimer’s discoveries of the 20th century. Beta-Amyloid is the main cause of Alzheimer’s plaques and its discovery helped researchers learn more about the development and progression of the disease.
The discovery of Beta-Amyloid helped scientists launch clinical trials for drugs that target specific Alzheimer’s symptoms. The first clinical study was launched in 1987 by Lambert Pharmaceutical, known today as Pfizer. The study was assisted by the National Institute on Aging and the recently formed Alzheimer’s Association.
This trial paved the way for future research, including a successful 1999 study using mice and an “Alzheimer’s vaccine.” The study was conducted by researchers at Elan Pharmaceuticals of South San Francisco. The study genetically altered mice to develop plaques and tangles and injected them with an experimental vaccination. When injected with the vaccine, the genetically altered mice did not develop any plaques or tangles, and the mice they left untreated did. When the vaccine was used on diseased mice, it cleared the plaques and healed the damaged neurons in the brain.
In 2004, researchers at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center discovered an agent which provided a way to track and measure the development of plaques in the brain.This agent is called Compound B or PIB. Compound B binds to amyloid plaques in the brain and becomes visible underneath a PET scanner which gives researchers a visual of the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease. Compound B enhances researchers’ ability to document and track the progression of Alzheimer’s disease which will improve detection of the disease, and hopefully help lead to a cure.
Equally important to discoveries of the causes of Alzheimer’s are the tools used to diagnose the disease. The first validated measurement tool to evaluate cognitive decline was created by researchers in 1968. This was a vital first step in identifying and diagnosing people with the disease and has led to diagnosis methods used today such as mental status testing, interviews with family and friends, as well as neuropsychological testing.
Today, funding for Alzheimer's research is at an all-time high, but many experts believe that they still are not receiving adequate funding. Rudy Tanzi, a Harvard professor of neurology highlights this problem. "We are a knowledge-rich yet budget-constrained field. We have many clues about how to stop Alzheimer's, especially from recent genetic studies, but insufficient funds to explore how." With Alzheimer's disease estimated to afflict 13.8 million Americans by 2050, funding for research needs to become a higher priority.