Frank LaFerla
“What’s really exciting is the number of promising drugs that target the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s instead of treating the symptoms,” says Chancellor’s Professor of neurobiology & behavior Frank LaFerla. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

As more Americans reach retirement age than ever before, finding effective ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease — the No. 1 age-related disorder — becomes increasingly important. In Orange County, UC Irvine’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders leads the way in Alzheimer’s research, education and patient care.

Each year, UCI MIND presents one of the field’s most influential events, the Southern California Alzheimer’s Disease Research Conference, which features speakers and presentations showcasing the latest breakthroughs. The 2011 conference — to be held Friday, Sept. 30, at the Irvine Hilton — tackles a critical subject: understanding when mild cognitive impairment transitions into dementia.

Frank LaFerla, UCI MIND director and Chancellor’s Professor of neurobiology & behavior, helped plan the event. For more than a decade, he and his collaborators have made seminal discoveries about the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s and how to limit associated memory decline. Here, LaFerla discusses current research and treatments and what we can expect in the future.

Q: The first of the baby boom generation turn 65 this year, ushering in the biggest group of seniors in U.S. history. How major a public health issue will Alzheimer’s become?
A: It’ll be enormous, especially locally. California has the nation’s largest baby boom population; Orange County by itself ranks fifth. Alzheimer’s is going to hit us hard, because age is the most significant risk factor for the disease. One of every 20 people over 65 will be affected by dementia, and eventually half of those over 85 will suffer from Alzheimer’s. This is going to put an amazing strain on our healthcare system and on families.

Q: What are some of the promising treatments on the horizon?
A: There are a lot of pharmaceuticals currently being tested in the clinic that we’re hopeful will help people with Alzheimer’s. What’s really exciting is the number of promising drugs that target the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s instead of treating the symptoms. These are called disease modifiers, and they can aid people with early onset dementia by blocking the formation of the neural plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s.

Q: What’s the status of your own research on using stem cell treatments to limit Alzheimer’s-related memory loss?
A: We’ve had a lot of success with animal models showing that neural stem cells can reverse Alzheimer’s-like cognitive deficits. We’ve progressed to creating a population of human neural stem cells that will be the basis of clinical trials on patients. We’re still in the early stages, and we’re fortunate to have received a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine that is supporting our work.

Q: Is there anything people can do to avoid getting Alzheimer’s?
A: Technically, nothing has been proven to prevent Alzheimer’s, but there’s been encouraging research identifying factors that can delay its onset. Some of the most exciting findings have been made at UCI — such as the importance of daily exercise and mental stimulation. Animal model testing here on the efficacy of exercise has produced convincing results. It’s now included in a national clinical trial involving people with early onset dementia.

Q: Where do you see Alzheimer’s research and treatments in 10 to 15 years?
A: I think progress will be notable. We’ll probably be able to identify individuals with early onset dementia much sooner than we can now, and studies have found earlier treatment to be more successful. The pharmaceutical arsenal will increase dramatically, and we’ll have drugs that provide disease-modifying effects rather than symptomatic relief.

Q: How will UCI MIND contribute to these advances?
A: Significantly. We’re among the world leaders in translational research – which is taking laboratory discoveries and developing practical uses for them on patients. There’s a long list of compounds we’ve studied that are and will be part of clinical trials.

Q: What excites you about the upcoming conference?
A: This is its 19th year, which makes it one of the longest-running Alzheimer’s research conferences in the country. For the second time in a row, we’ve sold out. We’re expecting close to 600 people, which is 30 percent more than in 2010. We’ve managed to keep the event fresh by having the best speakers in the field address captivating issues. This year’s subject — “When does it become dementia?” — is particularly topical with the news that University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt has been diagnosed with early onset dementia.

Q: Coach Summitt has become the highest-profile person to go public with her diagnosis. How will that affect the field?
A: It helps tremendously to have an outspoken person talking about this disease. She wants to keep coaching, and that’s fantastic. She’s committed to showing that even if you’re diagnosed with early onset dementia, you don’t need to stop what you’re doing. She’s bringing a lot of focus to this topic, which is making people pay attention and, hopefully, get tested earlier. UCI MIND’s Memory Assessment Clinic is the only outpatient facility in Orange County providing comprehensive services devoted solely to the early identification of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, so we’re in a great position to help.