Because of the FDA’s accelerated approval of aducanumab and ongoing news surrounding COVID-19, many important Alzheimer’s and dementia science stories were under-reported. While everyone’s eyes were laser-focused on COVID-19 this year — and rightfully so — there were noteworthy developments in Alzheimer’s disease research that you may have missed. This year researchers and clinicians presented new findings that will lead to methods of prevention and treatment and improvements in diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease.
Here are five 2021 Alzheimer’s research advances you might have missed:
A link between COVID-19 and the brain. In July, the Alzheimer’s Association’s international, multidisciplinary SARS-CoV-2 consortium presented its first data on the short- and long-term consequences of the COVID-19 infection on the brain. The data, reported at AAIC 2021, suggested a link between COVID-19 and persistent cognitive impairment, including the acceleration of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
The Alzheimer’s drug pipeline heated up. In the second half of 2021, there was renewed excitement in the class of experimental Alzheimer’s drugs that target beta-amyloid. These include drugs from Eli Lilly (donanemab), Eisai (lecanemab) and Roche (gantenerumab), all of which received Breakthrough Designation by the FDA in 2021. We also heard topline results from a phase 2 trial of a drug that targets tau tangles, a toxic protein in the Alzheimer’s brain. Plus, strategies targeting neuroinflammation, protecting brain cells, and reducing vascular contributions to dementia advanced into clinical trials.
Diversity was a major focus in all things Alzheimer’s. Researchers are working to better understand how Alzheimer’s risk and progression differ in different populations. Alzheimer’s Association-funded researcher Kacie Deters published findings that suggest Black individuals have lower levels of an Alzheimer’s marker in the brain compared to other groups with similar cognitive abilities. The Alzheimer’s Association’s New IDEAS study — which is evaluating brain amyloid PET scans in individuals of underrepresented populations with memory loss — aims to recruit a minimum of 2,000 Black and 2,000 Hispanic individuals.
Blood tests for Alzheimer’s took a major step forward. We’ve seen advances in the development of blood tests that provide a simple, accurate, non-invasive way to detect Alzheimer’s years before symptoms appear. Now, they’re being used to screen people for participation in a new clinical trial to prevent memory loss.
Research uncovered another benefit of exercise on the brain. An August 2021 study found a hormone produced by muscles during exercise can bolster the health of neurons and improve thinking and memory. While the results are very preliminary, this offers more evidence that exercise is good for the long-term health of the brain.
The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference will be held with both virtual and in-person opportunities this year. To learn more about these recent studies and other advances in research in the last several years, visit alz.org/aaic. Information on local virtual programs and services for those living with dementia and their caregivers can be found by visiting alz.org/greatermissouri.
Sarah Lovegreen is the Vice President of Programs for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Missouri Chapter.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: What you may have missed in Alzheimer’s research in 2021