December 15, 2010
SIU Med School Experts Treat Patients, Seek Treatments for Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease, is a growing problem among the elderly in the United States. Physicians, researchers and other health care professionals at the Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield are treating patients while working to find a cure for the disease.
Currently more than 5.3 million individuals in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease or a related disorder. “As the baby-boomer generation ages, the number of people affected by this disease is expected to increase to 10 to 15 million by 2050,” says Dr. Tom Ala, associate professor of neurology and interim director for SIU’s center.
“Significant advances have been made in the past year in both the understanding of the pathophysiology of Alzheimer's and its diagnosis. Scientists now work with mice to study the biochemical changes that appear to cause the disease, which provide a mechanism to evaluate the efficacy of different experimental treatments without risking harm to humans,” explains Ala.
“There have also been exciting developments in brain imaging and spinal fluid analysis that we hope will lead to much better diagnostic accuracy in the next year or two.”
Alzheimer’s disease is a dementia that first causes short-term memory failure, Ala says. Over time patients gradually start to have trouble with their communication, problem solving abilities and taking care of themselves. They may become confused, agitated, depressed and eventually totally disabled.
Ala lists the primary risk factors for the disease as age, family history and lifestyle. It also is thought that head trauma in which a patient was knocked unconscious and injured seriously enough to require hospitalization also could be a risk factor.
“A comprehensive evaluation for each patient is essential because no single test or exam can yield a definite diagnosis. The clinical assessment done during an office visit allows physicians to rule out treatable forms of dementia and determine the best treatment strategy for the individual patient,” says Ala. SIU’s staff uses a variety of diagnostic techniques to define each patient’s memory problem and prescribe the best treatment as early as possible.
All dementia disorders drain patients’ families both physically and emotionally. Caregivers become overburdened, struggling to care for their elderly loved ones, who often can no longer remember their children’s faces.
SIU’s Alzheimer’s Center in Springfield is made up of a team of medical specialists including neurologists and neuropsychologists as well as a gerontology specialist and nurses. In addition to conducting research, the center offers comprehensive services to treat patients and counsel families.
Started in 1987, SIU’s center serves 93 Illinois counties and served more than 2,000 patients last year. It has 35 active network sites throughout downstate Illinois including SIU’s Memory and Aging Clinic in Springfield. The network is made up of physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, and nursing home staff members in Illinois, who are trained to identify Alzheimer’s disease or related disorders.
The SIU team works with the provider sites to treat patients in local communities so they can avoid traveling to Springfield for evaluation. SIU clinicians serve as a resource for complicated cases, which may be referred to the Springfield site by a local provider.
“Although an effective treatment is not yet available, the number of promising new drugs in the treatment pipeline has been increasing each year. Medications known as cholinesterase inhibitors may improve memory in some patients. They are sold under the brand names of Aricept, Razadyne and Exelon. Also a newer medication, Namenda, seems to help the memory and communication skills,” says Ala.
Currently SIU is participating in clinical trials for two drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease in patients. A trial is underway for bapineuzumab, a drug used to help control the progression of the disease, sponsored by Janssen Alzheimer Immunotherapy. SIU is one of three centers in the U.S. studying Raloxifene for use in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. This trial is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.
“Another important treatment aspect is using behavioral methods to enhance communication and interactions with the individual with Alzheimer’s disease, thus improving the quality of life for both patients and families,” says Ron Zec, Ph.D., SIU associate professor of neurology and psychiatry, who specializes in early detection of dementia.
Zec says research has shown that lifestyle choices can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease for several years. The recommended lifestyle choices include regular exercise, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a diet high in vegetables and fruits. Keeping the mind active by reading, working on the computer, and playing board games and crossword puzzles as well as social activities also help delay dementia.
SIU scientists in Springfield and Carbondale continue to try to understand the cause of dementia. Based on basic science research with rats and mice, they believe that amyloid, a waxy protein, is formed and deposited in the brain because brain activity slows down and in turn causes slower thinking that may progress to dementia. Their initial research indicates the brain slowing may be due to other health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.
The funding for research projects for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias totals $3.8 million and is from various public and private sources including the National Institutes of Health.
The SIU Alzheimer Center uses a toll-free telephone number to answer questions,
1-800-DIAL-SIU (1-800-342-5748). The Center’s Web site is www.siumed.edu/alz.
All network sites for SIU’s Center for Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders provide assessment for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, treatment, case management, family assistance and education. Services are provided by appointment. Local physicians and health care professionals regularly consult with SIU faculty in Springfield. The provider sites, the host agencies, coordinators and phone numbers are listed below.