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CNN Today

Alzheimer's Researchers Attempt to Pin Down Causal Element

Aired July 10, 2000 - 2:05 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: It's being called an epidemic in the making. Researchers at the largest-ever international gathering on Alzheimer's disease warn, unless advances are being made soon in early detection and treatment, the number of people with the memory-robbing disorder could reach 25 million worldwide by the year 2025.

As CNN's Rhonda Rowland reports from Washington, one hot topic at the discussion, the cause of the disease -- Rhonda.

RHONDA ROWLAND, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kyra, it's been almost 100 years since Dr. Alzheimer called attention to the two key brain changes that characterize the disease: the so-called plaques and tangles. Since then, there's been debate over which comes first and how the two work together to cause trouble with thinking and memory. Most scientists are placing their bets on the amyloid plaques as the primary cause, and now they think they know how they're formed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. DENNIS SELKOE, BRIGHAM & WOMEN'S HOSPITAL: There are two enzymes, which we call beta and gamma secretase, that cut up a large protein and release a small fragment, which is called the amyloid beta protein or a beta.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLAND: Dr. Selkoe believes the amyloid may build up for 20 or 30 years before causing memory problems. There's growing consensus that the amyloid build-up then triggers inflammation in the brain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. JOSEPH ROGERS, SUN HEALTH RESEARCH INSTITUTE: In Alzheimer's disease we have some very characteristic pathologies, amyloid deposition being one of the main ones. Inflammation naturally arises as a response to that and causes significant damage in addition to the amyloid.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLAND: That brings us to the characteristic tangles. Researchers think they're important and probably develop after the plaques.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SELKOE: The central message of the World Alzheimer's Congress, and certainly the pivotal research part of it this week, is that scientists have sort of gotten together and figured out several steps of the Alzheimer cascade.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROWLAND: Of course understanding that cascade will help in the development of treatments -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Rhonda, has this understanding of what goes on in the brain with Alzheimer's disease led to any treatments?

ROWLAND: Well, Kyra, actually there is a new treatment that is out of the box, so to speak, that researchers are very excited about. It's a drug developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and it's supposed to interfere with this gamma secretase enzyme that Dr. Selkoe described. And they've now started studies in humans and right now they're just looking at safety. And they think that they'll know in several years whether or not it will really work.

PHILLIPS: How about preventing the disease in the first place?

ROWLAND: Another interesting question there, as we mentioned, this inflammation process. Some researchers believe it's possible that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen or Naproxen, could possibly interfere with this process. And the reason they believe this is because people with rheumatoid arthritis have lower rates of Alzheimer's disease.

So again, this is just pointing to some other areas of research and they believe that they will have some answers in a few years -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: Rhonda Rowland, thank you very much.

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