Harvard Mental Health Letter

Disease-modifying drugs for Alzheimer's: Hope or hype?

New Alzheimer's drugs are in clinical trials. Experts advise cautious optimism.

In many ways, Alzheimer's disease is the biological equivalent of a slow-motion train wreck. Studies have revealed that the two hallmark brain lesions in Alzheimer's — amyloid deposits and neurofibrillary tangles — appear decades before telltale symptoms such as memory impairment. (Indeed, an active area of both genetic and neuroimaging research is the identification of preclinical signs of Alzheimer's in the brain, raising the hope of reliable diagnosis for those most at risk.)

The fact that Alzheimer's takes so long to develop suggests that it may be possible to design drugs that work early in the disease process, perhaps to delay symptom onset and disability. For that reason, researchers have been testing a number of such "disease-modifying" drugs that target the earliest biological changes in Alzheimer's.

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