Longo is determined to change that. He, along with dozens of Stanford researchers from multiple disciplines, have been working with the Stanford Alzheimer's Research Center to conduct interdisciplinary research on the disease and related disorders since 2015 when the National Institute of Health provided $7.3 million to open the center and support five years of research. The center is one of more than 30 institutions funded as a federal Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.
"We've entered the golden era for neuroscience, I think," said Longo whose pioneering work earned him the inaugural 2015 Melvin R. Goodes Prize for Excellence in Alzheimer's Drug Discovery from the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation and landed his efforts on the cover of Time Magazine last February.
He said the center has given researchers the ability to accelerate their studies by enabling them to gather data — brain scans, blood tests, spinal taps — from a group of subjects and create a body of data that the faculty can tap into with their ideas about better ways of diagnosing and treating the disease, which is among the most common neurodegenerative disorders in the nation. Alzheimer's affects about 5.1 million Americans. By 2050, that number is expected to increase to 13.8 million, according to statistics from Stanford University..
"(Researchers at the clinic) have all this information that they can't get from a mouse," Longo added."This is the fuel that will change this situation and give us something better to offer than we offered 20 years ago."
Those working with the center already have a range of research in the pipeline as well as a new push to recruit subjects to study what happens inside the brain during Alzheimer's earliest stages.
For the first time this month, Longo began clinical testing of an oral drug on Alzheimer's patients that he, his team and collaborator Dr. Stephen Massa pioneered. When tested on mice, the experimental drug (referred to as C31) showed to keep nerve cells from degenerating by strengthening their protection against neurological attacks. If the trials prove successful, C31 could become the first treatment to prevent the disease rather than treat its symptoms.
Other research at the center has identified possible "protective genes" against the effects of brain degeneration.
"Right now," Longo said, "one of the biggest mysteries is: you can take two brains from patients; they have the same amounts of amyloid and tau (both are proteins in the brain that interfere with synaptic connections), and one person can barely function and the other is functioning normally. Why? There's something about the functioning person that their brain is able to resist that amyloid and tau. One idea is that it's because they've stayed active; another theory is that there's something in the brain that's protecting it."
Longo said the greatest barrier to getting effective therapies to people "is that it's so hard to know what's going on in the brain with Alzheimer's disease. If we understood that, we'd be developing therapies at tenfold the rate we are now, and they'd have a greater chance of being effective."
As part of the push to better understand the onset of the disease, Stanford's Alzheimer's Center is currently seeking research subjects in various categories, including healthy volunteers as well as people in the early stages of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Lewy Body disease or mild cognitive impairment.
Volunteers are asked to come to Stanford for a neurological examination, cognitive tests and questionnaires, one or two MRI brain scans, a blood draw and, in most cases, a lumbar puncture to obtain spinal fluid. They are asked to return in a year for more evaluations and also to consider eventual brain donation.
Palo Alto resident Romola Georgia said she came upon a flier for Stanford's "Healthy Brain Aging Study" after participating in the October 2016 Walk to End Alzheimer's, and has signed herself up as a healthy volunteer.
Georgia, a cellist and gardener who also raises chickens in her yard, described the challenges of caring for her husband over the past six years as minor lapses in his early 70s have developed into advanced dementia.
"The path of dementia is confusing, challenging... and undermines everything you've come to assume about your family, your relationship and the future," Georgia said, adding that she is pleased to be able to help with the research.
While other federal Alzheimer's Disease Research Centers have focused on later stages of the disease, Stanford is particularly looking for people in the early stage of Alzheimer's or its precursor, mild cognitive impairment, said psychologist Dolores Gallagher Thompson, a research professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.
"Why it is that some people with mild cognitive impairment go on the develop Alzheimer's disease and some don't?," Gallagher Thompson said.
"That's the 64-million-dollar question. There are lots and lots of older people with symptoms that would qualify as mild cognitive impairment, but nobody knows what that means because we don't really know whether that's going to progress to Alzheimer's.
"So in our center we're trying to get as any people as possible with the 'mild cognitive impairment' label — either they already know they have it, or they come in and we test them and we tell them they have it."
Longo said the best research-tested precaution people can take to reduce their risk of Alzheimer's is to exercise 30 minutes a day for five days a week. He also recommends a Mediterranean diet as part of an overall plan to reduce risk of Alzheimer's, high blood pressure and diabetes. Still, there are no guarantees.
For more information, go to med.stanford.edu/adrc or contact Christina Wyss-Coray at ADRCstanford@stanford.edu.
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