Before 1968, Alzheimer’s was considered a rare disease that affected people relatively early in life, and dementia was largely seen as a normal consequence of ageing. The discovery that Alzheimer’s disease was the major cause of dementia was a huge leap forward in our understanding of dementia, and it set the modern era of research in motion. 

But dementia research was late out of the gates. By 1968, pacemakers and coronary bypass surgery were already transforming the lives of people affected by heart disease, and combination chemotherapy was being rolled out for the treatment of cancer. While funding for dementia research still lags behind these other disease areas, the last 50 years have seen incredible scientific progress that is paving the way to better treatments.

Bringing a treatment to market is usually the culmination of decades of research.

The process begins when scientists make a discovery about a disease and it continues through multiple stages of biological testing, chemical development, and vital clinical trials.

 

Research starting in the 70s, led to medications by the 90s

 

In the late 90s, the first medications for Alzheimer’s made it into the hands of patients. These treatments have their routes in pioneering research from the 1970’s, which revealed that people with Alzheimer’s have reduced levels of a key brain chemical.

While these drugs have now helped millions of people, they can’t change underlying disease processes or protect the brain from damage. In 2013, the G8 group of nations, set a target of finding the first disease-modifying dementia treatment by 2025, a date that is now looming large. This is an ambitious goal, but advances in our understanding of Alzheimer’s have brought it within reach.

As genetic research matured into the 1990s, researchers revealed how the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid accumulates in the brain.

Anti-amyloid drugs are now the front runners in the race for the first treatments that could actually slow or stop the disease, and several of these medications are now making their way through clinical trials.

 

There is more to dementia than just Alzheimer's

 

But Alzheimer’s is just one form of dementia and is in itself a complex disease with multiple facets that will need to be tackled in different ways. The first disease-modifying drug will not be a cure-all, and we need to make sure that it will be the first of many.

From a standing start 50 years ago, research progress has been accelerating alongside hard-won increases for funding. While dementia research is still playing catch-up, initiatives like the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance are exploring a diverse portfolio of drug targets and are positioned to seize upon new research findings and develop these ideas towards new drugs that can be tested in clinical trials.

Ultimately the progress that matters is more and better ways to help people affected by dementia. While these breakthroughs lie ahead, scientists have been making them possible through decades of research innovation and scientific success.