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Thinking about dementia like cancer

February 29, 2016 | Patricia Harriman
UC Irvine Alzheimer's disease researcher Frank LaFerla, PhD.

UC Irvine Alzheimer's disease researcher Frank LaFerla, PhD.

In many ways, a diagnosis of dementia is like getting a diagnosis of cancer, says Frank LaFerla, PhD, Hana and Francisco J. Ayala School Dean of Biological Sciences, director of the UC Irvine Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a researcher with the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND).

“Alzheimer’s is just one type of dementia, but because it accounts for 65 percent of all cases, the terms have come to be used interchangeably,” he explained during a recent Newport Beach Library lecture.

“But just like cancer, you wouldn’t want to be diagnosed with breast cancer and be given drugs for prostate cancer, and vice versa. It’s important to know what type of dementia you have so you can get the right treatment.”

Dementia describes symptoms, not a condition

A diagnosis of dementia does not describe a specific condition. It describes a set of symptoms, including impaired thinking and memory. In addition to Alzheimer’s disease, other types of dementia include:

  • Vascular: A result of inadequate blood flow to the brain
  • Dementia with Lewy bodies: Characterized by abnormal accumulation of protein deposits called Lewy bodies
  • Frontotemporal: When nerve cells are damaged in the brain’s frontal lobes

When someone is diagnosed with dementia, they are experiencing symptoms without knowing the root cause of the symptoms, LaFerla explained. It is important to then undergo a neurologic evaluation to determine the underlying cause of dementia and receive the most appropriate treatment.

When does Alzheimer’s begin?

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease, where symptoms are present and worsen over a number of years. What this means, LaFerla said, is that Alzheimer’s can begin decades before the initial signs of memory impairment start to show.

A confirmed diagnosis of Alzheimer’s can be determined only after death, when microscopic examination of the brain reveals the characteristic plaques and tangles that researchers believe are what cause cell death and tissue loss.

“We are failing at treatment, because by the time it starts, it is way too late. The disease has progressed too far,” he said. “We want to develop blood tests and biomarkers to determine risk profiles for people while they are in their 40s.”

Dr. Howard J. Federoff, UC Irvine Vice Chancellor, Health Affairs and CEO, UCI Health, led a Georgetown University team that developed a blood test in 2014 that could lead to the possible development of earlier treatment options.

Cutting-edge Alzheimer’s research

LaFerla said UCI MIND conducts some of the most advanced research into Alzheimer’s causes and cures, from lab tests on mice models to developing new lines of adult stem cells, to understanding the role of various lifestyle choices and how inflammation may affect the onset and progression of the disease.

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