There is scarcely a human activity that is not affected by memory. To overestimate the importance of studies on memory seems impossible. Yet, all too often, we take memory for granted. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, is a progressive brain disease that slowly destroys a person’s memory, thinking skills and the ability to perform simple, everyday tasks. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and currently affects more than five million Americans, or one in nine adults over the age of 65. The number of cases is expected to triple in the next 35 years as Baby Boomers age.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Over the last 30 years, however, researchers have made remarkable progress in understanding the disease. Most recently, scientists at the Roskamp Institute in Sarasota have made discoveries that could mean a cure for the disease is on the horizon. Roskamp is a not-for-profit research facility that has been dedicated to studying Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions. Alzheimer’s is a complex disease, involving at least three factors that disrupt the brain: neuroinflammation (the inflammation of nervous tissue), a build up of the protein beta-amyloid and problems with the protein tau.

Scientists at Roskamp began a study a decade ago to see whether Nilvadipine, a common blood pressure medication used overseas, helped fight the beta-amyloid buildup in the brain in those patients with Alzheimer’s. They found the drug also suppressed neuroinflammation and the tau protein. Scientists started breaking down the molecule structure of the three pathologies and identified a common enzyme in all of them called syk, or spleen tyrosine kinase.

“This new piece of data is very encouraging because it is a way to tackle these three main pathologies all together,” says Fiona Crawford, president and CEO of Roskamp Institute. “We’re optimistic that this might prove more valuable than approaches that have been used before.”

Researchers hope to develop new drugs to inhibit syk that are suitable for clinical trials in Alzheimer’s disease. A phase three clinical trial of Nilvadipine for Alzheimer’s is currently underway in Europe. Five hundred Alzheimer’s patients in 26 clinics across nine countries are participating in the double-blind, placebo-controlled study that began in 2013. Each participant will be followed for 18 months to see if the drug is effective at slowing or stopping the course of the disease. Even if Nilvadapine does not lead to a cure, Roskamp’s recent breakthrough opens the door for other researchers to discover new therapies for Alzheimer’s.

“We’re a little bit ahead of the game with things, but there is a lot of work to do in Alzheimer’s research,” says Crawford.“Still these new findings are very encouraging.” SRQ

PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN SIGMUND