Alzheimer's treatments: What's on the horizon?
Despite many promising leads, new treatments for Alzheimer's are slow to emerge.By Mayo Clinic Staff
Current Alzheimer's treatments temporarily improve symptoms of memory loss and problems with thinking and reasoning.
These Alzheimer's treatments boost performance of chemicals in the brain that carry information from one brain cell to another. However, these treatments don't stop the underlying decline and death of brain cells. As more cells die, Alzheimer's disease continues to progress.
Experts are cautiously hopeful about developing Alzheimer's treatments that can stop or significantly delay the progression of Alzheimer's. A growing understanding of how the disease disrupts the brain has led to potential Alzheimer's treatments that short-circuit basic disease processes.
Future Alzheimer's treatments may include a combination of medications, similar to how treatments for many cancers or HIV/AIDS include more than a single drug.
The following treatment options are among the strategies currently being studied.
Taking aim at plaques
Some of the new Alzheimer's treatments in development target microscopic clumps of the protein beta-amyloid (plaques). Plaques are a characteristic sign of Alzheimer's disease.
Strategies aimed at beta-amyloid include:
Recruiting the immune system. Several drugs — known as monoclonal antibodies — may prevent beta-amyloid from clumping into plaques or remove beta-amyloid plaques that have formed and help the body clear the beta-amyloid from the brain. Monoclonal antibodies mimic the antibodies your body naturally produces as part of your immune system's response to foreign invaders or vaccines.
In June 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved aducanumab for the treatment of some cases of Alzheimer's disease. This is the first drug approved in the United States to treat the underlying cause of Alzheimer's by targeting and removing amyloid plaques in the brain. The FDA approved the drug on the condition that further studies be conducted to confirm the drug's benefit. Experts also need to identify which patients may benefit from the drug.
The monoclonal antibody lecanemab shows promise in removing amyloid and has moved into phase 3 clinical trials.
Donanemab is another monoclonal antibody that showed promise in phase 2 trials and is moving into phase 3.
In studies, the monoclonal antibody solanezumab did not demonstrate any benefit for individuals with mild or moderate Alzheimer's disease. It's possible that solanezumab may be more effective when given earlier in the course of the disease. The drug seemed safe in recent studies, and solanezumab continues to be evaluated in the preclinical stage of the disease.
Preventing destruction. A drug initially developed as a possible cancer treatment — saracatinib — is now being tested in Alzheimer's disease.
In mice, the drug turned off a protein that allowed synapses to start working again, and the animals experienced a reversal of some memory loss. Human trials for saracatinib as a possible Alzheimer's disease treatment are now underway.
Production blockers. These therapies may reduce the amount of beta-amyloid formed in the brain. Research has shown that beta-amyloid is produced from a "parent protein" in two steps performed by different enzymes.
Several experimental drugs aim to block the activity of these enzymes. They're known as beta- and gamma-secretase inhibitors. Recent studies showed that the beta-secretase inhibitors did not slow down cognitive decline and were associated with significant side effects in those with mild or moderate Alzheimer's, which has decreased enthusiasm for this mechanism of drug.
Keeping tau from tangling
A vital brain cell transport system collapses when a protein called tau twists into microscopic fibers called tangles, which are another common brain abnormality of Alzheimer's. Researchers are looking at a way to prevent tau from forming tangles.
Tau aggregation inhibitors and tau vaccines are currently being studied in clinical trials.
Alzheimer's causes chronic, low-level brain cell inflammation. Researchers are studying ways to treat inflammatory processes at work in Alzheimer's disease. The drug sargramostim (Leukine) is currently in research. It's thought that the drug may stimulate the immune system to protect the brain from harmful proteins.
Researchers studied the diabetes drug pioglitazone (Actos) to determine if it could lessen beta-amyloid and inflammation in the brain. But research showed that the drug wasn't effective.
Researching insulin resistance
Researchers are studying the effects of insulin on the brain and brain cell function, and insulin changes in the brain that may be related to Alzheimer's. A trial testing an insulin nasal spray determined that the drug wasn't effective in slowing the progression of Alzheimer's.
Studying the heart-head connection
Growing evidence suggests that brain health is closely linked to heart and blood vessel health. The risk of developing dementia appears to increase as a result of many conditions that damage the heart or arteries. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
A number of studies are exploring how best to build on this connection. Strategies under investigation include:
- Current drugs for heart disease risk factors. Researchers are investigating whether drugs such as blood pressure medications now used to treat vascular disease may also be beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s or may reduce the risk of developing dementia.
- Drugs aimed at new targets. Additional studies are looking more closely at how the connection between heart disease and Alzheimer's works at the molecular level to find new drug targets.
- Lifestyle choices. Research suggests that lifestyle choices with known heart benefits, such as exercising on most days and eating a heart-healthy diet, may help prevent Alzheimer's disease or delay its onset.
In one study, taking estrogen-based hormone therapy for at least a year during perimenopause or early menopause appeared to protect thinking and memory in women with a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease.
But further research has been conflicting, with some studies indicating that estrogen didn't offer any benefit. More research and a better understanding of the relationship between estrogen and cognitive function are needed before any recommendations can be made.
Speeding treatment development
Developing new medications is a slow and painstaking process. The pace can be especially frustrating for people with Alzheimer's and their families who are waiting for new treatment options.
To help accelerate discovery, the Coalition Against Major Diseases (CAMD), an alliance of pharmaceutical companies, nonprofit foundations and government advisers, has forged a first-of-its-kind partnership to share data from Alzheimer's clinical trials.
The CAMD has also collaborated with the Clinical Data Interchange Standards Consortium (CDISC) to create data standards. Researchers anticipate that these data standards and the sharing of data from more than 6,500 study participants will speed development of more-effective therapies.
June 30, 2021
Get the latest health advice from Mayo Clinic delivered
to your inbox.
Sign up for free, and stay up-to-date on research
advancements, health tips and current health topics,
like COVID-19, plus expert advice on managing your health.
ErrorEmail field is required
ErrorInclude a valid email address
To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information and to understand which
is beneficial, we may combine your e-mail and website usage information with other
information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic Patient,
this could include Protected Health Information (PHI). If we combine this information
with your PHI, we will treat all of that information as PHI,
and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy
practices. You may opt-out of e-mail communications
at any time by clicking on the Unsubscribe link in the e-mail.
Thank you for Subscribing
Our Housecall e-newsletter will keep you up-to-date
on the latest health information.
We’re sorry! Our system isn’t working. Please try again.
Something went wrong on our side, please try again.
See more In-depth
- Treatment horizon. Alzheimer's Association. https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/research_progress/treatment-horizon. Accessed March 5, 2021.
- Small GW, et al. Current and future treatments for Alzheimer disease. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. 2015;23:1101.
- Rygiel K. Novel strategies for Alzheimer's disease treatment: An overview of anti-amyloid beta monoclonal antibodies. Indian Journal of Pharmacology. 2016;48:629.
- Egan MF, et al. Randomized trial of verubecestat for mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 2018;378:1691.
- Liu-Seifert H, et al. Delayed-start analysis: Mild Alzheimer's disease patients in solanezumab trials, 3.5 years. Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions 2015;1:111.
- Seimers ER, et al. Phase 3 solanezumab trials: Secondary outcomes in mild Alzheimer's disease patients. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2015;12:110.
- Prevention and risk of Alzheimer's and dementia. Alzheimer's Association. http://www.alz.org/research/science/alzheimers_prevention_and_risk.asp. Accessed Dec. 28, 2018.
- Morris MC, et al. MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2015;11:1007.
- Neville J, et al. Development of a unified clinical trial database for Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's & Dementia. 2015;11:1212.
- Strittmatter SM. Emerging mechanisms in Alzheimer's disease and their therapeutic implications. Biological Psychiatry. 2018;83:298.
- Cao J, et al. Advances in developing novel therapeutic strategies for Alzheimer's disease. Molecular Neurodegeneration. 2018;13:64.
- Honig LS, et al. Trial of solanezumab for mild dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. New England Journal of Medicine. 2018;378:321.
- Nygaard HB. Targeting Fyn kinase in Alzheimer's disease. Biological Psychiatry. 2018;83:369.
- Grodstein F. Estrogen and cognitive function. https://uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Jan. 15, 2019.
- Neville J, et al. Accelerating drug development for Alzheimer's disease through the use of data standards. Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions. 2017;3:273.
- Graff-Radford J (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic. March 10, 2021.
- Biomarker qualification for risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) due to Alzheimer's disease (AD) and safety and efficacy evaluation of pioglitazone in delaying its onset (TOMMORROW). ClinicalTrials.gov. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01931566. Accessed Jan. 17, 2019.
- Ahn KC, et al. Regulation of diabetes: A therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer's disease? Journal of Korean Medical Science. 2019; doi:10.3346/jkms.2019.34.e297.
- Tolar M, et al. Aducanumab, gantenerumab, BAN2401, and ALZ-801 — The first wave of amyloid-targeting drugs for Alzheimer's disease with potential for near term approval. Alzheimer's Research & Therapy. 2020; doi:10.1186/s13195-020-00663-w.
- FDA's decision to approve new treatment for Alzheimer's disease. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/news-events-human-drugs/fdas-decision-approve-new-treatment-alzheimers-disease. Accessed June 8, 2021.