AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to more news about the brain and how it works. This week, researchers gathered in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the Alzheimer's Association International Conference. While there's no cure for Alzheimer's, experts have been looking for ways to diagnose it earlier and slow its progression. Among the studies presented this week was one that suggests that a drug may be able to stabilize Alzheimer's patients for up to three years.
Bloomberg News science reporter Elizabeth Lopatto has been covering the conference all week and she joins us now. Hi there, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH LOPATTO: Hello.
CORNISH: So tell us a little bit more about this study and this drug. I gather it was small but it's generating a lot of buzz.
LOPATTO: That's right. It's really unusual to see patients in this population stabilize. Usually they decline. And although it's very small and early, there's going to be a follow-up study that should be complete next year that will have more data on whether this is actually going to be a usable treatment.
CORNISH: Why is it that, even though it is a small study, it has created so much energy and talk? I mean, what's the mood in the research community about progress when it comes to Alzheimer's?
LOPATTO: Well, I think there's a real hunger for progress. There is, I think, a real desperation for any kind of treatment that could at least delay progression of the disease. Although, of course, the goal eventually would be to prevent it.
CORNISH: We talked about treatment and I want to talk about the research related to detection. What research has been presented this week that has been focused on trying to determine if somebody is developing Alzheimer's?
LOPATTO: There have been two studies that were presented here that I think are big for general practitioners, for knowing when somebody needs to go see a neurologist and get a bigger workup. And the first is date changes. So, walking, we don't think of it as being very difficult but it is pretty complex. And when you see changes in gait, when you see somebody slowing down or walking unevenly, if it's not due to something like arthritis, it could be a sign of cognitive decline.
Similarly, there have been changes in sleeping patterns that have also been linked to cognitive decline. There were several studies that came out suggesting that people who slept five hours or less, or nine hours a night or more were more likely to experience cognitive declines. And that anybody who had the changes in their sleep cycle might be experiencing changes that were related to Alzheimer's disease.
And so, those things are the sort of thing that a family doctor can ask about.
CORNISH: We're talking about a disease that more than five million people in the U.S. now have. And that number is expected to triple by the year 2050. Now, do you sense that researchers are feeling basically pressure to come up with treatments and possibly a cure?
LOPATTO: Yeah, I think that there is a lot of pressure. It's a big drain not only on the person who is ill, but on their families and their communities. And so, I think researchers are acutely aware of that. One of the metaphors that I've heard a lot here is people talking about Alzheimer's disease the way they talk about heart disease. And what they're saying is if you treat somebody who has mild dementia, what you're really doing is you're trying to treat after a heart attack.
And you can prevent somebody from getting worse after a heart attack, maybe. But, you know, what you want to do is actually prevent the heart attack.
CORNISH: Elizabeth Lopatto, thank you for talking with us.
LOPATTO: My pleasure.
CORNISH: Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter with Bloomberg News. She joined us from Vancouver, where she's been covering the Alzheimer's Association International Conference. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.