Checkup on Health

New research tackles Alzheimer’s disease

older woman holding her head
Alzheimer’s disease is a high priority for medical researchers, including those at UC Davis, and is now being investigated on many fronts.

By Ladson Hinton, M.D. 

Anyone who has watched a beloved family member or friend steadily deteriorate from Alzheimer’s disease knows how devastating the illness can be.

An estimated 5 percent of 65-year-olds and at least 30 percent of people over age 80 fall victim to the Alzheimer’s. The disease causes cognitive decline that diminishes memories, intellect and even the ability to perform basic daily functions, such as maintaining personal hygiene or holding a conversation.

As the baby boom generation ages and the impact on our society increases, the search for a cure has never been more pressing.

And never more hopeful.

Medications slow effects of disease

Ladson HintonAbout the author

Ladson Hinton is a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis, and is education director for the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Four  medications have now been FDA-approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s. Three work by increasing the availability of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for nerve-to-nerve communication within the brain. These medications, known as cholinesterase inhibitors, act by slowing the breakdown pf acetylcholine in the brain.

A fourth medication acts on glutamate, another brain neurotransmitter, and is approved only for the treatment of persons with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. 

Individuals with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s may also benefit from a combination of the two types of medication. Some recent studies suggest that the combination works better than either drug alone.

Medications can improve or stabilize cognitive functioning in many Alzheimer’s patients.

These medications can make significant improvements in people’s lives. They improve or stabilize cognitive functioning in many Alzheimer’s patients. In some cases they may enhance day-to-day functioning and/or behavioral problems, such as agitation.

Unfortunately however, these medications merely postpone, rather than completely stave off, the devastating progression of Alzheimer’s disease. They can make an important difference in keeping a person at home and functioning longer, but they are not a cure. Providing caregiver and family support — through, for example, referral to the local Alzheimer’s Association — and education are equally important.

Major nationwide study

'The Alzheimer's Project'

UC Davis appears in a four-part HBO documentary series about Alzheimer's that highlights scientific advancements and shares perspectives of patients, families and caregivers.

The series includes a two-part film “Momentum In Science" that highlights research at the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and includes an interview with its director, Charles Decarli. Learn more 

The good news is that Alzheimer’s disease is a high priority for medical researchers, and is now being investigated on many fronts.

For instance, the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center is one of several centers across the nation participating in a landmark federally funded study called the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. By following people in three progressively severe steps of cognitive decline — normal aging, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease — the study aims to identify biological markers that signal increased risk of cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer’s.

These biological markers may help with the development of new drug therapies that attack the root cause of the disease, or improve our ability to diagnose it.

While the study is closed to new subjects, investigators at UC Davis and other sites across the U.S. continue to follow subjects and analyze data. The study is funded by the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health. 

Clinical trials underway

UC Davis is also home to several active clinical trials for Alzheimer’s therapies.

For instance, one trial aims to determine whether a new oral drug will improve cognition and memory, global function, behavior and quality of life in mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s patients. The drug, known as Dimebon, has been shown to slow Alzheimer’s-related death of brain cells.

In the first two trial phases, patients showed statistically significant improvement in key aspects of disease, including memory and thinking, activities of daily living, behavior and overall function. At the end of the 12-month trial , Dimbeon-treated patients preserved their starting level of function on each measure of Alzheimer’s disease severity. Participants need to already be on a stable dose of the Alzheimer's drug donepezil to enter this clinical trial.

To find out more about clinical trials, contact the National Institute on Aging at (800) 438-4380 or the NIA website. For information about participating in UC Davis trials, call the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center at (916) 734-5496 or visit

Another trial aims to determine whether a specific antibody is safe and effective for use in subjects with Alzheimer’s. The antibody, bapineuzumab, is usually produced by white blood cells to destroy other substances in the body. In Alzheimer’s patients, researchers hope it can help remove a key protein that gathers in the brain and is thought to cause memory loss and confusion.

Numerous other studies are ongoing across the nation, and anyone who is interested in participating should keep abreast of developments. Depending on the study, Alzheimer’s patients, people with memory problems, and healthy older people may be participants. People of minority groups are especially encouraged to participate, as they are often underrepresented in research studies and may show important differences in drug effects.

Early diagnosis important

Early diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is important for many reasons:

  • The availability of medications that may improve cognition and functioning
  • Identification of other health or mental health problems that may be contributing to, or even causing, difficulties with memory and thinking
  • Greater likelihood that the person with dementia will be able to participate more fully in their health-care decision-making
  • Assessment of safety issues, and
  • Early intervention with family caregivers to connect them with community programs and web-based resources to reduce their distress.

The UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center provides diagnosis, consultation and research for Alzheimer’s disease or related disorders. The center is a special consultation clinic that can evaluate patients with serious symptoms of memory loss. Patients may be self-referred or referred by a family, an agency, or a physician.