Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects nearly 50 million people around the globe. That number is expected to more than double in the next 30 years without effective treatment. Currently, the treatments for dementia are only mildly effective. The few dementia medications that are available simply prolong the inevitable, slowing cognitive decline modestly.

Even with dementia medication, patients with Alzheimer’s disease and most other dementias have progressive memory loss. Over time they lose the ability to perform common everyday tasks. If patients live long enough, they will become dependent on others for all of their care. In this way, dementia is a devastating illness for loved ones.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are neurodegenerative diseases, which means nerve cells in the brain become dysfunctional and die. As brain cells lose their ability to function, the person loses the abilities those nerve cells once performed. Since brain cells have little natural capacity to regenerate, once they are sick and die, that particular brain function may be lost forever.

Stem cells have long been an attractive potential option for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia treatment. Since brain cells become sick and die, the alternative option most recently looked at is to restore and replace those cells with stem cells—cells that can become brain cells? Indeed, stem cells may do so much more. They release countless molecules that help brain cells grow and survive. Not surprisingly, stem cells are the focus of intense research as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Drs. Duncan and Valenzuela reviewed the current status of stem cells as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The research in animals has been incredibly promising. When stem cells are given to lab animals with experimental dementia, the stem cells find their way to the site of the disease and become new and healthy brain cells.

The research in animals has been so promising, that a number of Phase I and Phase II clinical trials in humans have been completed or are underway. From these trials, we know that stem cells appear to be safe for use in people with Alzheimer’s disease in that no serious adverse events were tied to stem cell use. It is too early to tell if these treatments will change the course of the disease until results are published. For now, we remain cautiously optimistic that the incredible effects of stem cells seen in animals may also translate to the same benefits in humans.

Reference: Duncan T, Valenzuela M. Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and stem cell therapy. Stem Cell Res Ther. 2017;8(1):111. Published 2017 May 12. doi:10.1186/s13287-017-0567-5

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