An Alzheimer’s breakthrough?

Researchers are amazed by the effectiveness of a new drug.

A drug originally developed to treat arthritis has shown promise in reversing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

In a study published in the January 2008 Journal of Neuroinflammation, researchers found that a drug called Enbrel, which was originally intended to counter arthritis symptoms, may in fact have a highly beneficial effect on those suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The drug, which is injected into the spine, appears to deactivate a person’s tumour necrosis factor, a chemical found in the brain fluid that is present in those who suffer from Alzheimer’s. U.S. researchers say one patient who took the drug, had his symptoms reversed in minutes. And other patients showed improvements in various Alzheimer’s symptoms, which include loss of memory, judgment and reasoning, and changes in mood, behaviour and communication abilities.

“It is unprecedented to see cognitive and behavioural improvement in a patient with established dementia – within minutes of therapeutic intervention,” Dr. Sue Griffen, a researcher at the University of Arkansas, told the London Evening Standard. “This gives all of us in Alzheimer research a tremendous new clue about new avenues of research.

Although the study was only carried out on a few patients, researchers hope it may finally provide some clues in unlocking the puzzle of Alzheimer’s, a goal which has proven so far frustratingly elusive. Successful treatment would be a long-awaited boon for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from this debilitating disease.

“It is of significant scientific interest because of the potential insight it may give into the processes involved in the brain dysfunction of Alzheimer’s,” said Griffin.

Her colleagues on the study seem equally positive. “[The drug] has a very rapid effect that’s never been reported in a human being before,” said Edward Tobinick, the study’s lead author who works out of the University of California. “It makes practical changes that are significant and perceptible, making a difference in daily living.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disease affecting the brain, causing memory loss, poor reasoning, communication difficulties and erratic behaviour. In its early stages, it renders the person unable to perform the functions of daily living. As it slowly progresses, the person may completely lose their ability to talk, recognize loved ones or think rationally.

It’s estimated that it affects 450,000 Canadians over the age of 65 and takes a tremendous toll on their families, who are often thrust into a caregiving role. The Alzheimer Society of Canada projects that as the population ages, we’re likely to see a skyrocketing number of new cases. By 2011, it predicts that the number of new cases will reach over 100,000 a year.

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