Poised for Progress: Learning About Promising Advances in Alzheimer's Research

Sen. Susan M. Collins
November 22, 2016

Biomedical research is changing lives and changing the world. During my time in the Senate, I have made it a priority to visit labs, equipment manufacturers, and educational institutions—here in Maine and across the country—that are on the cutting-edge of science and technological innovation. Recently, a Maine resident with ties to the University of Pennsylvania invited me to tour a research lab there and to speak with scientists who are conducting exciting studies of the human brain that may one day lead to a cure or effective treatments for devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

During my visit, I peered inside a brain ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease and a brain that was not. The difference was striking. The disease-riddled brain had shriveled to half the original size, and the ventricle had enlarged to what looked like a gaping hole in the brain. Many families are familiar with the tragic symptoms of Alzheimer’s: memory loss that disrupts life, confusion with time and place, trouble understanding, difficulty completing tasks, social withdrawal, changes in mood and personality, and inability to recognize loved ones. But seeing the signs in the brain demonstrated clearly the destructive nature of the disease and the promise of the research underway.

I have served as Co-Chair of the Congressional Task Force on Alzheimer’s since I founded it in the Senate in 2004. Earlier this year, I helped secure nearly $1.4 billion in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research that is included in the bill that would fund the National Institutes of Health. That’s a $400 million increase over last year and would build on the $350 million increase that I successfully advocated for in 2015. If enacted, this funding will represent significant progress toward the goal of providing $2 billion per year for Alzheimer’s research, the amount experts say is needed to find a means of prevention or effective treatments by the year 2025.

At the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania, and in research centers like The Jackson Laboratory here in Maine and others, NIH funding is making a difference. The Penn researchers with whom I met described promising trials that are underway to solve the mystery of Alzheimer’s.

The research is exciting; clinical trials are underway, and new developments are happening every day. Scientists are beginning to conduct randomized controlled trials on lifestyle factors including the impact of diet and exercise on cognitive health. The researchers at Penn told me that changes to our lifestyles could potentially reduce or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in people who do not have the gene associated with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I also had the opportunity to learn more about cutting-edge biomedical research being conducted at Harvard University, where researchers are examining the role of a gene regulator that helps protect aging neurons from stress, like the toxic effects of abnormal proteins, and whether this protective regulator can be stimulated to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Currently, most of the Alzheimer’s drug candidates under development seek to reduce Alzheimer’s disease pathologies. If the research at Harvard proves successful, however, it might open up entirely new avenues in Alzheimer’s research and development related to this protective mechanism in the aging brain.

The stakes are high. Alzheimer’s is ravaging brains and lives at an alarming rate – every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops the disease. Approximately 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease today, including 37,000 in Maine, and that number is soaring as our overall population grows older and lives longer. In addition to the devastating human cost, this escalation has dire implications for the federal budget. The United States currently spends more than $236 billion per year on Alzheimer’s treatment and care, including $160 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid, making it our nation’s costliest disease.

November is National Alzheimer’s Disease and Awareness Month. With historic increases in funding, and continued top-rate research, we are poised to finally make progress. But this is no time to take our foot off the accelerator. We must continue at full speed to advance this shared goal for families who have been touched by Alzheimer’s and for those who are at risk. One discovery at a time, we will find ways to re-shape aging, preserve brain health and well-being, and find that elusive cure.