There's no concrete understanding of what causes, there's no good screening method to allow for early detection and once it progresses there is no effective treatment. There're 24 million people with AD globally and that number will double in the next 20 years? Most people start developing it around the age of 65 with about 50% of seniors at the age of 85 having dementia. It costs US 172$ billion in healthcare costs because you would have to have the individual with AD sent to special senior homes. I used to volunteer at one back in high school and they're not pretty. The AD individuals are not treated with respect and dignity, but to be honest I don't blame the nurses as it is excruciatingly hard to take care of someone with AD and they are constantly overworked.
There're some theories about what causes it. The predominant theory is the formation of Ab amyloid aggregates or plaque which deposit in the brain. This leads to neuronal function loss and eventually the destruction of the medial temporal lobe and specifically the hippocampus (area of the brain involved with memories). Literally, if you look at a brain image (MRI) of someone with AD, the brain will appear hollow and much smaller in size then a regular brain. It's scary :(
Diagnosis of AD is done through cognitive tests like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Brain imaging tests aren't done often due to the associated costs, however lumbar punctures could be done. Yet, most people don't like getting needles so you can imagine how one would feel about getting a needle in the spine. From the spinal tap (lumbar puncture) you collect Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF) which is the fluid that is inside your brain and spinal cord. There aren't any markers that could be screened for in the blood.
|Source: Garber, K. (2012) Genentech's Alzheimer's antibody trial to study drug prevention. Nature Biotechnology;30:731-732.|
Treatment wise, there aren't any effective drugs. Most have been shown to work in a test tube but do not really do much in a human. A lot of the newly developed drugs are antibodies which are supposed to bind to Ab amyloids and stop them from aggregating (and forming plaques).
Again, they don't really work in a human.
That is where MiNDS comes in. It's actually my group name for my Drug Discovery courses where we are trying to propose a drug idea to treat Alzheimer's. Let me tell you it is much harder as it sounds to come up with a drug idea. There are multiple hypotheses for what causes Alzheimer's so we don't even know what should our drug be targeted. There are not easily available biomarkers to look at the progression/ improvement of the patient's condition. So many drugs have failed too, hence we've got a lot of work to do ahead of us :P
How do you guys feel about Alzheimer's Disease? Have you ever known someone who had it?