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October 20, 2005

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Hyde Pierce
Renowned actor David Hyde Pierce, a member of the Alzheimer's Association's National Board, spoke at an HMS symposium, 'Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain.' (Staff photos Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Work progressing on Alzheimer's, but too slowly

Neurodegeneration Center hosts Alzheimer's symposium

By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office

Utermohlen portrait
'Art and Alzheimer's Disease,' the works of William Utermohlen, opens at the Fogg Art Museum Oct. 22 (through Jan. 8). Utermohlen was born in 1933. In 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. His last self-portrait was painted just five years after he was diagnosed.
Actor David Hyde Pierce made an emotional plea for increased activism around Alzheimer's disease Monday (Oct. 17), saying that federal funding has leveled off despite scientific progress in understanding and treating the disease in the last 15 years.

Pierce, a member of the Alzheimer's Association's National Board, watched both his father and grandfather deteriorate and die from the disease, and watched both his mother and grandmother wither under the strain of care-giving and die of other causes.

"In those 15 years [since 1990], we've discovered 95 percent of what we know about Alzheimer's. We can diagnose it with a high degree of accuracy. We can diagnose it in younger people," Pierce said. "The funding that we've had has been extraordinary. The breakthroughs we've had with that funding have been extraordinary. But the funding has leveled off."

Pierce spoke at a Harvard Medical School symposium, "Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain," sponsored by the Harvard Center for Neurodegeneration and Repair. Center Director Adrian Ivinson said the event was somewhat unusual because it involved the entire Alzheimer's community, from researchers to activists to family members to patients themselves.

Utermohlen portrait

He said Alzheimer's is just one of several diseases that are the focus of the center and that the center wanted to share recent progress.

"We think we're making progress and we wanted to tell you about that progress," Ivinson said.

The symposium also featured talks by Professor of Neurology at Children's Hospital Bruce Yankner, Dennis Selkoe, center co-chair and the Vincent and Stella Coates Professor of Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Peter Lansbury, chair of the center's drug discovery laboratory and professor of neurology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Marilyn Albert, professor of neurology and director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Pierce described the disease's progression in his grandfather, saying he remembers him as a skilled chess player, a boat-builder, and a sailor.

"By the time the disease was through with him, he no longer knew how to move a chess piece or to put together a simple child's model boat," Pierce said.

Utermohlen portrait Utermohlen portrait

Though National Institutes of Health funding for Alzheimer's research increased from about $146 million in 1990 to $250 million today, Pierce said federal budget constraints are taking their toll. A recent bill approved by the U.S. House, he said, contained no increase in Alzheimer's disease funding.

Utermohlen portrait

Finding treatments are critical before the demographic bulge of the baby boom reaches 65, when the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease rapidly increase, reaching 50 percent by 85. When the baby boom generation begins to reach 65, experts expect the number of Alzheimer's cases to increase by a million per year until, by 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer's will have quadrupled from today's level, to 16 million, he said.

The symposium featured presentations on recent advances in Alzheimer's disease research. Yankner said that research has shown that certain genes - those responsible for learning and memory - that are very active in younger people shut off as we age, and shut off more rapidly in Alzheimer's cases. At the same time, genes responsible for inflammation, stress response, and brain repair that are relatively inactive in younger brains, become more active as we age, Yankner said, and kick into high gear with Alzheimer's disease.

Selkoe said the disease progresses as nerves lose their ability to deliver signals across the small gap, called a synapse, that separates nerve cells, eventually leading to synaptic failure and the nerve cell dying.

Utermohlen portrait
Utermohlen's 2000 self-portrait, done just five years after his diagnosis.

Many researchers believe that the damage is caused by the accumulation of the amyloid plaques observed in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Those plaques, in turn, are caused by pieces of protein cut from a larger protein by a brain enzyme. The pieces accumulate because of an imbalance between the body's production of the protein pieces and its ability to remove them.

A vaccine has been developed against the proteins that cause the amyloid plaques, Selkoe said. Though it failed in trials, partial results obtained indicated that after just two injections patients' brains were partly cleared of the plaques.

The production of vaccines and new drugs to treat the disease has been slowed by drug companies' aversion to risk and by the long time - and expense - of drug trials that must follow patients over Alzheimer's slow progression to prove the drugs' effectiveness, Lansbury said.

Dennis Selkoe, professor of neurologic diseases at Brigham and Women's, spoke at the symposium.

Lansbury said the center is seeking to reduce drug companies' risk by bridging the gap between basic research and the first steps of clinical trials.

"I'm very confident that this center will generate good compounds that will generate drug candidates," Lansbury said. "I am extremely optimistic ... because I think there's a number of potential therapies out there that can limit neuronal loss."


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  • Possible mechanism for link between diabetes and Alzheimer's:
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  • Trigger for Alzheimer's Disease Is Found

  • Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College