Researchers have successfully reversed memory loss in a small number of people with early-stage Alzheimer's disease using a comprehensive treatment program, which involves a combination of lifestyle changes, brain stimulation, and medication.
Memory improvements as a result of the treatment program have so far been sustained for 2 years, the researchers report, and some patients have even been able to return to work as a result.
Study co-author Dr. Dale Bredesen, of the Buck Institute on Research and Aging in Novato, CA, and colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Aging.
While the study only involved 10 patients, the researchers believe their findings may open the door to an effective therapy for cognitive decline.
"The magnitude of improvement in these 10 patients is unprecedented, providing additional objective evidence that this programmatic approach to cognitive decline is highly effective," says Dr. Bredesen.
It is estimated that by 2050, around 13.8 million Americans will have the condition - a dramatic increase that highlights the need for prevention and treatment strategies.
Unfortunately, identifying such strategies has proven challenging for researchers; while certain treatments have demonstrated effectiveness against cognitive decline in animal models, few show efficacy in humans.
In this latest study, Dr. Bredesen and colleagues suggest that a more personalized, combined treatment approach to cognitive decline may be the way forward.
The MEND program
The team - including researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles - assessed the effects of a treatment program called metabolic enhancement for neurodegeneration (MEND) on 10 patients.
The program - which is adapted to each individual patient - is described as a "36-point system" that involves changes in diet, exercise, sleep optimization, the use of specific medications and vitamins, and brain stimulation.
"Imagine having a roof with 36 holes in it, and your drug patched one hole very well - the drug may have worked, a single 'hole' may have been fixed, but you still have 35 other leaks, and so the underlying process may not be affected much," explains Dr. Bredesen.
"We think addressing multiple targets within the molecular network may be additive, or even synergistic, and that such a combinatorial approach may enhance drug candidate performance, as well."
All patients included in the study were experiencing memory loss as a result of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), subjective cognitive impairment (SCI), or early-stage Alzheimer's disease.
The team notes that nine of the patients possessed the ApoE4 gene, putting them at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease; five of the patients had two copies of this gene, meaning they were 10 to 12 times more likely to develop the condition.
The patients underwent cognitive testing before and after being treated with the MEND protocol.
'Far-reaching implications' for treatment of memory loss
The researchers found all 10 patients showed significant long-term improvements in memory with MEND, with many of the patients moving from "abnormal" to "normal" cognitive function.
One patient - a 69-year-old man who was in the process of shutting down his business after 11 years of progressive memory loss - saw major improvements in memory after just 6 months of MEND, such as the ability to recognize faces at work and remember his schedule.
After 22 months of treatment, his long-term memory recall increased from 3 percent to 84 percent, the researchers report. Now, instead of shutting down his business, he is expanding it.
Another case involved a 49-year-old woman who had major problems with facial recognition and verbal memory. Within a few months of treatment with MEND, she experienced significant improvements, such as regaining the ability to speak a foreign language.
One other patient was a 66-year-old man who had MCI. From magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, the team found that he showed an almost 12-percent increase in volume in the hippocampus - a brain region important for memory and learning.
Overall, the researchers believe their findings indicate that the MEND program may be an effective way to reverse memory loss in patients with early cognitive decline - even those who have a genetic risk for the condition.
The team adds:
"These results have far-reaching implications for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, MCI, and SCI; for personalized programs that may enhance pharmaceutical efficacy; and for personal identification of ApoE genotype."
While the results are promising, the researchers stress that studies involving a larger number of participants are needed in order to confirm the benefits of MEND for memory loss.