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What Drugs Are Approved to Treat Alzheimer’s?

Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, various medications are still available. These drugs target specific symptoms and help to improve a patient’s quality of life. In some cases, these medications can lead to improvements that last several years.

Currently, there are five FDA-approved drugs. These include donepezil, galantamine, memantine, rivastigmine, as well as donepezil with memantine.

Over the coming weeks, we will highlight each of these in greater detail.

Different Drugs for Different Stages

Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, patients experience different stages. These range from mild to severe based on a number of variables. These stages not only differ in terms of their symptoms but also in how they are treated.

Of course, these ‘stages’ are not exact. One patient may showcase unique symptoms in comparison to another patient, which is why a personalized treatment plan is often required. 

However, in terms of drugs listed above, they tend to be prescribed based on what they were approved for. Donepezil, for instance, is approved for all stages whereas memantine is approved for the more moderate to severe stages.

How These Drugs Work

Image: BC Medical Journal

Classified into two key groups, these five medications can be categorized into cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine. These drugs are able to treat different symptoms based on how they influence the brain and alter key neurotransmitters.

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors — Those living with Alzheimer’s experience a decrease in acetylcholine levels, impacting judgment, memory, and attention. These drugs boost levels of acetylcholine by preventing this chemical from breaking down in the brain.
    • Drugs included: Donepezil (brand name: Aricept), galantamine (brand name: Razadyne), and Rivastigmine (brand name: Exelon).
  • Memantine — Generally prescribed for the later stages, memantine (brand name: Namenda) targets another brain chemical, glutamate. There is also a combination of memantine and donepezil known by the brand name Namzaric.

All five of these medications promote positive effects, however, they may also lead to some undesirable effects. It is also important to note that those who suffer from cardiac arrhythmias should not take cholinesterase. Once again, each individual patient should work with their physician to develop a treatment plan that suits their unique needs.

Could This New Experimental Drug Halt Alzheimer’s?

All of the approved medications that are currently available do not truly treat this disease. Instead, they simply mask symptoms that progressively get worse. However, there is a new drug that is currently being tested, which is known as Aducanumab.

In a recent TIME article, 77-year old Peter is just one of 2,700 people who has volunteered to test this new drug — one that researchers believe is the first of its kind. In fact, it has been reported that this drug may be the first to actually halt the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

During this study, which is currently ongoing, two-thirds of the volunteers will be given the drug. The remaining one-third will be given a placebo. None of the volunteers know what they received and will not find out until 18 months have passed.

Regardless of whether a patient receives Aducanumab or the placebo, an injection is administered monthly. As stated, this will continue for a year and a half. After this period is over, volunteers such as Peter are guaranteed to receive the drug for an additional two years.

The First Phase Has Shown Promising Results

After collecting data for 36 months, the potential effects of aducanumab have been published in Neurology. This first phase is being referred to as PRIME, which will be followed by ENGAGE and EMERGE. What the researchers have found, was that patients who were treated with the drug experienced a decrease in amyloid plaque levels. This decrease was expressed in a dose- and time-dependent manner.

Although these effects are promising, it is still far too early to make any conclusions.

Early Screening Is The Smart Thing To Do

Like many drugs tested before aducanumab, these trials often target patients who are suffering from mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. This means that those who are diagnosed early, often have more options in terms of their treatment plan. This further supports the best practice of getting screened early.

If you are concerned about your thinking or memory, or want to establish a baseline from which to monitor your cognition, BrainTest is the application for you. BrainTest is the same kind of screening test at doctor’s offices, but one that is uniquely designed to screen for early changes in cognition associated with Alzheimer’s Disease, Dementia, and Mild Cognitive Impairment.

BrainTest can be taken in the privacy of your own home, anonymously scored at our centralized scoring core-lab, and result videos delivered inside the application feature an explanation of your score from a Board Certified Physician. When you are ready, these results can be shared with your doctor to help start the conversation about possible treatments. 

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