While there is currently no proven cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, there are many drugs in the works to help treat these debilitating diseases. While there are currently many models for dementia care, there aren’t any medications that are currently given routinely. The development of these drugs will be a major step forward for extending lifespans and improving quality of life for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. There are currently over 100 unique agents that are being tested to treat these conditions. Here is an overview of drugs that are being tested to treat Alzheimer’s diseases, as well as drugs that are being developed to control symptoms.

BACE inhibitors

BACE, or beta-secretase 1, is a protease that works to coat nerve cells. Presence of BACE helps the peptides present in the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient work more aggressively. BACE1 levels have been shown to be higher than average in patients with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many companies have been developing drugs that are designed to block BACE and prevent a buildup of the peptides that cause Alzheimer’s. However, trials for these types of drugs have not been particularly successful, and there is still much more work to be done to understand the function of BACE in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients and effectively treat the disease.

Passive immunotherapy

Another potential treatment in the works for Alzheimer’s is passive immunotherapy. Immunotherapy is the concept of training the immune system to become stronger and fight against threats on its own, without medication. Passive immunotherapy is an injection of pre-developed antibodies into the veins, which would theoretically train the body to naturally resist amyloid beta, a compound responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists are currently working to develop antibodies that are safe for use and testing in Alzheimer’s patients. For the antibodies to be effective, they have to be very specifically developed, which will likely require extensive trial and error. However, hopes are high for this type of treatment, and there are currently several major clinical trials happening to test passive immunotherapy.

Anti-inflammatories

While scientists are learning more about the functions and causes of Alzheimer’s every day, there’s still so much we don’t know. One theory that many scientists are interested in is whether or not inflammation in the body and brain plays a part in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. If this were the case, then in theory a special anti-inflammatory drug developed to specifically target this inflammation could mitigate symptoms and even treat the disease. Scientists theorise that the chemicals that the brain releases to fight inflammation could also be damaging healthy brain cells, which would lead to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or other brain illnesses. There have been studies linking inflammation and Alzheimer’s, but it has been very difficult to develop an effective anti-inflammatory drug to treat it because it’s hard to pinpoint specifically what aspects of the inflammation to treat. More research will be required before scientists can use this information to develop a drug.

Neuroprotective medication

A large category of Alzheimer’s treatment drugs that is currently being tested is neuroprotective drugs. These drugs would essentially act as an agent to protect healthy cells in the brain from the peptides that cause Alzheimer’s. There are a few different agents that scientists believe could work well as an Alzheimer’s treatment and that have been shown to have protective properties in the brain. For example, glutamine is an amino acid that protects tissues and nerves that are under stress, and research is currently being done to determine how this could be applied to a treatment. There are so many potential neuroprotective agents and strategies that have been identified as having potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease, so it’s likely we’ll see some sort of development in this space in the near future.

Tau protein pathology

An intriguing category of drug research for Alzheimer’s has to do with the tau protein, which is a common indicator of dementia symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients. The tau protein tangles in the brain, particularly the sections associated with memory, causing degeneration. Scientists are currently studying how the tau protein works in patients with Alzheimer’s to determine if they could treat the disease by addressing the tau protein. Unfortunately, research on this topic is still fairly new, so it’s unlikely we’ll see much development in this space for a few more years at least.

Cognition enhancing medications

While they cannot cure Alzheimer’s, there are cognition enhancing drugs that are currently on the market and often used to treat patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. These cognitive enhancing drugs have shown somewhat positive results for patients with moderate to severe forms of dementia, helping them with basic memory functions and aiding them in maintaining a daily routine. However, they can’t slow development of dementia, which is why researchers are still looking for a more effective solution to treat these patients. These drugs can also have unpleasant side effects, such as nausea, so they are typically only given when the disease is in steady decline and there is a true need for them.

There are a few different categories of these types of drugs. Cholinesterase inhibitors are given to patients in earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, and they focus more on stalling memory loss. Even scientists don’t have much understanding right now of why these drugs work, so there hasn’t been much development in expanding them. Once patients reach the moderate to severe stages of Alzheimer’s, they’re often treated with Namenda. While this doesn’t treat memory in the same way, it helps patients retain their ability to complete basic tasks, which improves quality of life drastically.

Holly Klamer is a connector with SeniorGuidance.org, an organisation that helps provide comprehensive resources on various senior living options, and a contributor at SeniorLivingHelp.org, where she frequently writes about issues associated with ageing, dementia and Alzheimer's disease.