The latest clue in the search for new, more effective ways to treat Alzheimer’s disease happened by accident. Scientists were studying people being treated for inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and discovered that when these patients took drugs called TNF inhibitors, the risk for Alzheimer’s disease decreases significantly.
What does the research mean for the future of Alzheimer’s treatment? Here’s the story…
In a search for drugs that might be effective against Alzheimer’s disease, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston recently analyzed health data collected in a study called Drug Repurposing for Effective Alzheimer’s Medicines (DREAM).
The DREAM research began a couple of years back. It consists of compiling health data from thousands of people who are being treated with pharmaceuticals for various diseases and then figuring out if any of these treatments were also lowering the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-robbing forms of dementia.
New Discoveries In Drug Treatment (From Old Medicines)
The data, produced by collaborators from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Rutgers, is designed to try a unique way of investigating the effects of drugs. Instead of the usual discovery methods that entail first looking for effective therapies by trying out drugs on lab animals, the researchers are parsing data from patients who are already taking a range of prescriptions. Then, after the researchers uncover promising possibilities, those drugs will be tested in the lab to determine if they truly are effective for memory and cognitive problems.
Or course, I don’t think combing through all this pharmaceutical data will provide a definitive cure for Alzheimer’s, but it brings us closer to understanding what’s going on when Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia wreck the neurons in the brain.
And plenty of data is being crunched. The DREAM research includes the electronic health records of about 56 million people at 360 hospitals who are being treated by 317,000 healthcare providers. In the data is information about people with inflammatory conditions: rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.
In the latest analysis, the researchers found that TNF inhibitors, anti-inflammatory drugs given to treat rheumatoid arthritis, lower Alzheimer’s risk – but interestingly, only for people who are also suffering from cardiovascular disease.1
The Problem With Chronic Inflammation
Previously, other studies have indicated that TNF inhibitors can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And the new research confirms an important central fact about Alzheimer’s disease that we’ve long reported in this newsletter – inflammation plays a key role Alzheimer’s disease development and progression.
Or, in researcher jargon – “The molecular mechanisms underlying these findings remain to be identified, although accumulating evidence suggests that targeting systemic or peripheral inflammation in subgroups of patients who might benefit the most may be a promising approach to disease modification,” says researcher Madhav Thambisetty, MD, PhD, who is with the National Institute on Aging.
The “TNF” in TNF inhibitors stands for tumor necrosis factor. When white blood cells release TNF (and there are several different forms of TNF), it signals immune cells to become inflamed – telling them what sort of immune defenses to put into action and where in the body they should perform their work.
During harmful chronic inflammation, which occurs when there is, in fact, no need to protect the body from a health threat, inflamed immune cells that don’t stand down can cause serious damage. These immune cells harm organs by acting like mis-directed soldiers who are burning down villages to “save” them.
TNF Can Also Cause Inflammation in the Brain
Certain types of TNF can cause immune cells to harm neurons in the brain. Researchers believe that further investigation may reveal a way to use TNF inhibitors to specifically fight against that kind of harm, although we’re still a long way from there.
Meanwhile, there are numerous natural ways to get your body to make less TNF:
- Participate in regular aerobic exercise: A study at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine indicates that 20 minutes of moderate exercise, like fast walking on a treadmill, drops TNF levels by five percent.2 Not a big reduction, but every little bit helps.
- Eat more yogurt: Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that eating 12 ounces of yogurt every day for nine weeks can significantly lower your TNF.3
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: A four-month study at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota found that eating fruits and vegetables – especially those high in carotenoids (the natural pigments that make vegetables and fruits red, orange and yellow) – can lower TNF and other signs of inflammation like C-reactive protein.4
My view on all this is that no matter what long-term results emerge from research into TNF inhibitors, we already know that reducing inflammation is critical to maintaining a sharp memory. What’s more, leading a healthy lifestyle reduces inflammation naturally and can only do good things for your brain and body.
So, don’t wait for the medical researchers to come up with a new drug regimen. Do your brain a favor by exercising regularly, choosing to eat healthy foods, managing your stress levels, and getting regular sleep.