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A new century of Alzheimer's disease research

ll accounts, that focus will likely begin to pay off in this second century of Alzheimer’s research. Until 1986, some 80 years after German physician Alois Alzheimer discovered the brain abnormalities associated with the disease, physicians understood little about Alzheimer’s disease. But several decades ago, the pace of discovery began to accelerate, says Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo physician in Rochester who directs the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), encompassing the research programs in Jacksonville and Rochester.

“We have moved a great distance forward in understanding what might be the key, or, in the least, an important aspect of this disease,” Dr. Petersen says. “And we are at the threshold of developing therapies that we hope will eventually impact Alzheimer’s disease.”

“We are not slogging through a fog anymore,” says Dr. Younkin, who has helped define the direction that Alzheimer’s research has taken in many of the world’s research labs. “We can see the top of the hill for the first time, and while we probably won’t get where we want to be for many years, it is really exciting.” Dr. Younkin helped discover that a single brain protein, known as amyloid-beta 42 (AB42), appears to be the central player in the disorder. And much of Alzheimer’s drug research is focused on different ways to attack Aâ42, believed to be the most vulnerable target -- the Achilles’ heel -- of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We know AB42 is always on the scene and is clearly important,” says Richard Caselli, M.D., who heads Alzheimer’s disease research at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. “So the prevailing model is that AB42 is it, and if you can somehow control AB42, you can control Alzheimer’s disease.”

Protein provides initial “insult”

Today, an estimated 20 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease. Within the higher-functioning portions of their brains (the areas responsible for thought and memory), twistin
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