As more Americans reach retirement age than ever before, finding effective ways to prevent and treat Alzheimer‚Äôs disease ‚ÄĒ the No. 1 age-related disorder ‚ÄĒ becomes increasingly important. In Orange County, UC Irvine‚Äôs Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders leads the way in Alzheimer‚Äôs research, education and patient care.
Each year, UCI MIND presents one of the field‚Äôs most influential events, the Southern California Alzheimer‚Äôs Disease Research Conference, which features speakers and presentations showcasing the latest breakthroughs. The 2011 conference ‚ÄĒ to be held Friday, Sept. 30, at the Irvine Hilton ‚ÄĒ tackles a critical subject: understanding when mild cognitive impairment transitions into dementia.
Frank LaFerla, UCI MIND director and Chancellor‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs become?
A: It‚Äôll be enormous, especially locally. California has the nation‚Äôs largest baby boom population; Orange County by itself ranks fifth. Alzheimer‚Äôs 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‚Äôs. 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‚Äôre hopeful will help people with Alzheimer‚Äôs. What‚Äôs really exciting is the number of promising drugs that target the mechanisms of Alzheimer‚Äôs 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‚Äôs.
Q: What‚Äôs the status of your own research on using stem cell treatments to limit Alzheimer‚Äôs-related memory loss?
A: We‚Äôve had a lot of success with animal models showing that neural stem cells can reverse Alzheimer‚Äôs-like cognitive deficits. We‚Äôve progressed to creating a population of human neural stem cells that will be the basis of clinical trials on patients. We‚Äôre still in the early stages, and we‚Äôre 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‚Äôs?
A: Technically, nothing has been proven to prevent Alzheimer‚Äôs, but there‚Äôs been encouraging research identifying factors that can delay its onset. Some of the most exciting findings have been made at UCI ‚ÄĒ such as the importance of daily exercise and mental stimulation. Animal model testing here on the efficacy of exercise has produced convincing results. It‚Äôs now included in a national clinical trial involving people with early onset dementia.
Q: Where do you see Alzheimer‚Äôs research and treatments in 10 to 15 years?
A: I think progress will be notable. We‚Äôll 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‚Äôll have drugs that provide disease-modifying effects rather than symptomatic relief.
Q: How will UCI MIND contribute to these advances?
A: Significantly. We‚Äôre among the world leaders in translational research ‚Äď which is taking laboratory discoveries and developing practical uses for them on patients. There‚Äôs a long list of compounds we‚Äôve 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‚Äôs research conferences in the country. For the second time in a row, we‚Äôve sold out. We‚Äôre expecting close to 600 people, which is 30 percent more than in 2010. We‚Äôve managed to keep the event fresh by having the best speakers in the field address captivating issues. This year‚Äôs subject ‚ÄĒ ‚ÄúWhen does it become dementia?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄĒ is particularly topical with the news that University of Tennessee women‚Äôs 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‚Äôs fantastic. She‚Äôs committed to showing that even if you‚Äôre diagnosed with early onset dementia, you don‚Äôt need to stop what you‚Äôre doing. She‚Äôs bringing a lot of focus to this topic, which is making people pay attention and, hopefully, get tested earlier. UCI MIND‚Äôs Memory Assessment Clinic is the only outpatient facility in Orange County providing comprehensive services devoted solely to the early identification of Alzheimer‚Äôs disease and related dementias, so we‚Äôre in a great position to help.