Medications currently used in the majority of Alzheimer’s treatment plans consist primarily of acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, or chemicals that attempt to inhibit further damage produced by enzymes that degrade AChE. Acetylcholine was the first neurotransmitter to be identified and is responsible for optimal synaptic activity, stimulation of many gland secretions and muscle cell stimulation at the neuromuscular intersection.
During the stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the ability of AChE to facilitate brain cell signaling and neuronal connections progressively worsens due to a significant decrease in the ability of brain cells to produce many important neurotransmitters. The distinct “plaques and tangles” found in brains suffering from AD is the principle cause of reduced AChE levels. Mood and memory regulating neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine also experience severely curtailed amounts as a result of mass brain cell death in most areas of the brain.
AChE medicines used to halt Alzheimer’s disease progression helps control cognition and memory impairment by preventing symptoms from worsening. For people with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s dementia, physicians often prescribe an AChE inhibitor along with memantine (trade name Namenda), a chemical that blocks NMDA-type glutamate cell receptors. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that, when existing at excessive levels in the brain. causes overstimulation of neurons and destroys them through a process called excitotoxity.
Memantine combined with an AChE medication is one of the few Alzheimer’s treatment plans that remains effective against advanced dementia. However, it does not seem to produce any beneficial effects on patients with mild AD symptoms. Less than one percent of patients taking Memantine experience adverse side effects such as insomnia, dizziness, headache or nausea. Currently, Memantine is also being used in trials for relief from GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), Tourette’s, ADHD and migraine headaches.
Facts about Alzheimer’s Disease
Myths about Alzheimer’s disease still exist due to its relatively new emergence as a disease that is rapidly growing into epidemic proportions. For example, most people consider moderate to severe memory loss as a “natural part of aging”. However, this is not the case, although some memory impairment is expected due to age-related shrinkage of various brain areas and cognitive problems resulting from medical conditions unrelated to the brain.
According to the Alzheimer’s Associate website, the 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s vs normal cognitive concerns that precipitate immediate Alzheimer’s treatment plans are:
- Marked disruption of daily life due to memory and cognitive issues
- Inability to solve problems that once presented little difficulty
- Inability to follow through and complete familiar tasks
- Confusion regarding place and/or time
- Spatial relationships and images are often misunderstood or perceived wrongly
- Trouble writing and speaking clearly
- Frequently misplacing often-used items such as keys, money and credit cards
- Exhibiting poor judgment or failing recognize something that is dangerous or fake (a good example of this is the commonality of elderly people being “scammed” into giving large sums of cash to strangers)
- Becoming more socially withdrawn than usual and avoiding social activities that were once enjoyable
- Disconcerting personality and mood changes
Another myth that is slowly being recognized and disbelieved is the idea that only elderly people can develop Alzheimer’s. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease can strike people as young as 30, a condition primarily resulting from inheriting genes associated with AD. Patients with AD who are under the age of 50 are usually put on an Alzheimer’s treatment plan that consists of AChE inhibitors such as the Exelon patch and Aricept. Both are designed to address mild to moderate symptoms of dementia by slowing the unrelenting development of Alzheimer’s disease progression.
Another recent treatment for Alzheimer’s disease currently undergoing clinical trials is called IVIG/Gammagard, an immune therapy produced by Baxter International that seems to prevent further cognitive decline in AD patients over a period of three years. According to research reports delivered by the St. Louis-based Washington University School of Medicine, immune therapy is also being studied as a possible method for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Neurological findings have determined that brain changes accelerated by components of AD often begin affecting the brain as much as 25 years before people begin to show symptoms of the disease. Although the FDA has already approved Gammagard for treatment of disorders caused by immune system dysfunctioning, it has not been approved for inclusion in any Alzheimer’s treatment plans.
In late-stage Alzheimer’s the brain is severely atrophied and neuronal loss has devastated the ability of the mind to control the body. Inability to walk, talk, swallow properly and communicate is common in this advanced phase of dementia, often forcing loved ones to place the affected individual into a 24-hour nursing facility. Because hallucinations and aggressive behavior frequently accompany these debilitating symptoms, physicians may prescribe antipsychotic medication to alleviate the discomfort of experiencing agitated emotions.
Risperdal and Zyprexa are two of the more commonly prescribed antipsychotics that relieve agitation and psychotic symptoms. AChE inhibitors, while effective in improving memory and cognition, do not alleviate the severe dementia found in late-stage AD patients.
Although a variety of medications are available that benefit any Alzheimer’s treatment, researchers have yet to find that elusive antidote for completely eradicating Alzheimer’s disease. The hope is that within the next decade, medications capable of preventing the progression of the disease when found in time will eliminate the development of the devastating effects of late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.