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Big break for Alzheimer's research?

Big break for Alzheimer's research?

By Chris Strub

The search for a cure for Alzheimer's Disease, the most common form of dementia, has been frustrating scientists around the world for decades. But recently released findings from researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies may represent a breakthrough several years in the making.

More than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. It's the sixth leading cause of death in America, and is the only one among the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.

But a drug known as J147 -- a substance derived from curcumin, found in the colorful Indian spice turmeric -- has shown the ability to improve multiple types of memory in aged mice with the disease. Research published by Marguerite Prior and her colleagues have demonstrated that the drug could prevent synapses in the brain from disconnecting - effectively halting the disease.

Previously, researchers have focused on the biological pathways involved in formation of amyloid plaques, the dense deposits of protein that are the hallmark of the disease. But the team at the Salk Institute, led by professor David Schubert, instead waited for mice to age before administering the drug J147. The revolutionary approach addressed the comprehensive slate of concerns associated with old age, rather than just the amyloid pathway.

"Alzheimer's should be looked at not as one causative agent," Schubert recently told KPBS in San Diego, "but as a whole cumulative spectrum of age-associated things that (are) going wrong in the brain."

The findings were encouraging. Mice, aged to 20 months - "very old for an Alzhemier's mouse," according to Prior -- that were naturally exhibiting memory problems were administered J147 through food. Even in advanced stages of Alzheimer's, the drug was able to reverse memory deficits.

The Walk to End Alzheimer's is the nation's largest event to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer care, support and research. Sept. 21 is the walk for the Greater Binghamton area, at Otsiningo Park; the following weekend (Sept. 29) is a walk at Cass Park in Ithaca; and Oct. 5 is a walk at Long Branch Park in Syracuse. For more information and/or to make a donation, visit

Prior's research explains that a number of cellular processes known to be associated with Alzheimer's pathology are affected by J147, including an increase in protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Memory formation, neuron growth and connection, and protection of neurons from toxic insults are all positively influenced by J147. Postmortem studies have shown below-normal levels of BDNF in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.

The Salk researchers tested the effectiveness of J147 against Aricept, the world's most commonly prescribed Alzheimer's drug, by putting mice through a water maze that tests spatial memory.

The mice will do their best to get to an elevated platform in the middle of the pool, and could be trained to remember where the platform is. But the mice had been doped with scopolamine, a drug that impairs memory.

When researchers removed the platform, the J147-treated mice were largely able to swim right to where the platform used to be - marked improvements over the mice who received only Aricept. They concluded that J147 improved both short-term and spatial memory, while Aricept helped only with the former.
Researchers are encouraged that because of the drug's ability to protect nerve cells, it may also be effective in fighting Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as well as stroke.

Schubert says the next step is to submit an investigational new drug application with the FDA, but funding is key. The process will cost $1.5 million, he says, but for the millions of Americans afflicted with Alzheimer's, after decades of research, J147 could represent the breakthrough that families are looking for.

The fight against Alzheimer's Disease is nothing new to the pages of Healthy Life Magazine. In our Fall 2008 issue, we spoke with Jared Paventi, spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association's Central New York chapter, about what his organization is doing to raise public awareness about the disease. And in our Winter 2011 edition, we discussed research of the importance of Vitamin B12 to fight the onset of Alzheimer's in aging adults.