Dr Carol Routledge
Director of Research, Alzheimer’s Research UK
Could successful dementia treatment be a matter of timing?
By the time someone starts to show symptoms, a disease like Alzheimer’s has already caused significant damage to their brain.
Researchers around the world are working to improve the detection of diseases like Alzheimer’s and make earlier diagnosis possible. But why are we focussing valuable research effort on improving the diagnosis of diseases that we can’t yet effectively treat?
Well firstly, when families notice that a loved one is starting to behave differently they generally want to know why as quickly as possible. Receiving a dementia diagnosis often changes people’s priorities and bringing that day forward gives people more time to take stock and plan for the future. Secondly, it gives people more opportunities to adopt a lifestyle that could help slow disease progression. And thirdly, while current treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s are limited, they are thought to have the most impact in the early stages.
Screening for dementia before symptoms begin to show
It’s true for most diseases– the sooner you can tackle them, the better the chance of treating them successfully. Early detection is a major focus for health services around the world, with screening programmes for diseases like heart disease and bowel cancer helping to shift the detection of these diseases earlier, when treatment is more likely to be successful.
Because we can’t diagnose people early enough, effective Alzheimer’s treatments are languishing in a lab instead of changing people’s lives.
By the time someone starts to show symptoms, a disease like Alzheimer’s has already caused significant damage to their brain. Research has revealed that diseases processes get underway in the brain up to 20 years before symptoms start to affect people’s lives. This presents a window of opportunity during which we could detect the disease and start treatment.
At the moment we can only trial potential Alzheimer’s medications after this pre-symptomatic window. This may be a bit like trying to tackle a late-stage cancer and it is likely to be part of the reason why experimental Alzheimer’s drugs, which show promising signs of being able to tackle key disease-processes, haven’t yet been successful in clinical trials.
Many researchers now believe that we may have already developed effective Alzheimer’s treatments that can slow the progression of the disease. But because we can’t diagnose people early enough, they are languishing in a lab instead of changing people’s lives.
Leading the digital dementia revoloution
Alzheimer’s Research UK is proposing a global solution to transform the diagnosis of the diseases which underlie dementia. We want to detect diseases like Alzheimer’s 10-15 years earlier than we do now so that in turn we would be able to treat those affected one or even two decades earlier.
The last few years have seen a transformation in how digital technology is used to collect and analyse patient data. We are working to unite key players in data science and machine learning with leading dementia scientists and clinical experts, and lead a digital dementia revolution that will track the very earliest stages of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
We want to use this knowledge to help ensure an accurate diagnosis for everyone at a time that’s right for them, giving future treatments the head start they need to have the biggest impact on lives.