Forget about Alzheimer’s at our peril – Australia leads in neuro research.

| June 29, 2013 | 0 Comments
Alzheimer's Action Day 2012

Alzheimer’s Action Day 2012 (Photo credit: The Pointe at Kilpatrick)

Hazel Hawke was known for her sharp mind. So it came as a shock in 2003 when she announced on prime-time television that she had Alzheimer’s disease, or the ”big A” as she liked to called it.

Alzheimer’s Australia chief executive Glenn Rees saysthe personal disclosure from the former wife of a former prime minister was a ”bombshell” at the time.

Hawke was the first high-profile Australian with the disease to talk about it openly, he says.”We hadn’t really had anyone speak out before.”

Last month, a decade after her public admission, the social rights campaigner and enthusiastic pianist died from complications of the disease. A memorial was held at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday.

It is thanks to people such as Hawke, and tireless other campaigners, that awareness of Alzheimer’s has entered the public conscience. The disease is not something society can afford to forget.

”The threat of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases is extraordinary,” says Dr Bryce Vissel, the head of neurodegenerative research at Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

The statistics are stark: aboutone in three people over 85, and one in 10 over 65, will develop the condition. The World Health Organisation estimates the cost of caring for people with dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form, totals about $600 billion a year worldwide.

In Australia, a 2009 Access Economics report projected spending on dementia would outstrip any other health condition by the 2060s.

”While rates of diseases like prostate cancer are going down, the rates of Alzheimer’s are going up and there is no change in sight,” says Professor Juergen Gotz, the director of the Clem Jones centre for ageing dementia research at the Queensland Brain Institute.

Research into the disease, which was first described a century ago, has been steadfast, with most insights uncovered by scientists in the past three decades. But despite significant progress, the field has encountered a series of treatment setbacks in the past few years.

Last year, several key drugs, which many hoped would lead to a cure for the disease, failed to improve the memory of patients in clinical trials. Not only disappointing, the drug failures also call into question the leading hypothesis of the cause of the disease – a build-up of plaque in the ain – and how best to treat it.

The head of Neuroscience Research Australia and Alzheimer’s researcher,Professor Peter Schofield,says the discipline has been forced to recaliate and change gears.

Some researchers, includingVissel, see an opportunity for those whose theories of the disease have been outside the mainstream to stand up and be noticed.

”We’ve been working on the idea that it’s inflammation in the ain that’s the cause of the degeneration and the symptoms,” he says.

Australian scientists have also made significant progress diagnosing the disease at earlier stages, says Professor Ralph Martins, the research director of the McCusker Alzheimer’s Research Foundation.

”This has propelled Australia to the forefront of Alzheimer’s research,” he says.

Australian scientists were part of an international consortium that last year reported changes in ain proteins and other related signals could be detected up to 25 years before patients showed declines in their memory.

The findings pave the way for trialling drugs to prevent the disorder, several of which will begin later this year, Martins says.

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