Alzheimer's researchers are trying new treatment approaches, including trying to boost the immune system, remove toxic tangles of protein and stimulate brain waves with light and sound.



A controversial new Alzheimer's drug has renewed interest in treatments that remove what are known as sticky plaques from the brain. But many scientists believe this approach on its own is not going to stop the disease. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on efforts to find other ways to protect the brain from Alzheimer's.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Aduhelm in June. The decision was based primarily on the drug's ability to clear out a sticky substance called amyloid beta, which tends to build up in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. But Malu Gamez Tansey, a neuroscientist at the University of Florida, says future treatments will need to do more than just go after amyloid.

MALU GAMEZ TANSEY: The field has been moving beyond amyloid for for many years now, knowing that you can never put all your eggs in one basket.

HAMILTON: Tansey's lab is focusing on immune cells in the brain. She says these cells vacuum up not only amyloid but a range of other toxic substances.

TANSEY: Perhaps the accumulation of amyloid is because the immune cells, the vacuum cleaners don't do their job.

HAMILTON: Tansey says as people age, these immune cells get weaker and less able to prevent the changes that lead to Alzheimer's.

TANSEY: The idea is that if you could boost the immune system, rejuvenate it somehow, that you might be able to slow down the process, perhaps reverse it but certainly prevent it.

HAMILTON: So Tansey's lab is studying drugs that may provide that boost, Tansey was one of several researchers who described alternative approaches to treatment at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Denver last month. Another speaker was Sarah DeVos, a senior scientist at Denali Therapeutics. She's spent much of her career studying a protein called tau, which is responsible for another hallmark of Alzheimer's, the tangles that appear inside brain cells. DeVos thinks tau may be more dangerous than amyloid.

SARAH DEVOS: Tau aggregation is directly correlated to cognitive decline.

HAMILTON: DeVos says Tau appears first in a brain area called the entorhinal cortex, which is involved in memory and navigation.

DEVOS: And then it moves very systematically. So it jumps from one brain region to the next to the next. And there are actually kind of six different areas that tau pathology can move to.

HAMILTON: Experimental drugs might be able to halt this process by removing toxic forms of tau. But it's been difficult to get these drugs past something called the blood-brain barrier. So researchers at Denali began studying a system in the body that helps iron cross this barrier to get from the bloodstream to the brain. And DeVos says they realized something.

DEVOS: Hey, this is a really efficient system. Can we design a drug that will kind of, more or less, take a ride over?

HAMILTON: They did. And at the Alzheimer's conference, DeVos described a version that's designed to go after tau. Then there are scientists who want to avoid drugs altogether. A team at MIT has been studying electrical pulses in the brain called gamma waves. They play a critical role in learning and memory. The team noticed that these waves become weaker in people with Alzheimer's, so they decided to see if they could slow down the disease by boosting gamma waves. Li-Huei Tsai led the team. She says they exposed mice to lights and sounds that caused the gamma waves in their brains to strengthen and synchronize.

LI-HUEI TSAI: What really surprised us is that this approach produces profound benefits in mice engineered to model Alzheimer's disease.

HAMILTON: Their brains started clearing out both amyloid and tau proteins, and the mice performed better on tests of learning and memory. Dr. Diane Chan, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who also works in Tsai's lab, says the next step was to try the approach on humans.

DIANE CHAN: We sent the device home with people who have mild Alzheimer's dementia to let them use these devices an hour a day every day.

HAMILTON: So the team built a portable device that could generate light and sound pulses at just the right frequency, 40 hertz. After three months, Chan says, the team checked participants' brains for signs of atrophy.

CHAN: We found that the group that used the active setting at 40 hertz light and sound - this group actually did not see any atrophy over this time frame.

HAMILTON: But people who'd been using an inactive placebo device did have brain atrophy. The results came from a small study. Now the scientists are gearing up for a larger one.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.