At Last, Some Hope for Preventing the Slow Mental Decline of Alzheimer’s

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Phillip Toledano for TIME

I’ve been waiting to write this week’s TIME Magazine cover story on Alzheimer’s disease for a long time. It’s been a while since there has been any significant progress in treating this stubborn degenerative brain disease.

Researchers have known for quite some time that Alzheimer’s is distinguished by the presence of protein plaques in the brain, along with the debris from dead and dying neurons. The plaques, it seems, trigger the breakdown of the neural connections that nerve cells need to stay healthy. But nothing so far — from a vaccine to drugs — has really made a difference in improving the memory loss and dementia that characterize the disease.

But now, thanks to sophisticated brain scans and better ways to look for signs of the disease in the spinal fluid and even in the blood, scientists are hoping to be able to detect the first signs of trouble earlier — even before mental decline sets in. And if they can do that, they are optimistic that they will also be able to stop the accumulation of harmful plaques as well as the death of neurons before they become too stubborn to reverse.

These efforts are still experimental, but they are an important first step toward finally having something, anything that can reverse the disease in patients.