September 21st is World Alzheimer’s Day, named for a disease that affects millions of lives around the world - and for which there is still no cure.
The traditional scientific approach to Alzheimer’s research has not been successful, and none of the major pharmaceutical companies have succeeded in developing a cure for dementia/Alzheimer’s.
We believe it’s time for a new approach to Alzheimer’s research. It’s time for an approach where basic scientists, translational researchers, clinicians, government, and industry work together. It’s time we combine cutting edge basic research, clinical research and patient care. It’s time, in other words, for a public-private partnership. We are impatient; we aim to start such a collaboration in Norway, and we invite collaborators to join us in this endeavour.
We need a new approach. David Cameron, former Prime Minister of the UK, once stated: “The truth is that dementia now stands along cancer as one of the greatest enemies of humanity. The cost to society and to the individuals and families affected are staggering.”
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are now the leading cause of death in the UK. It has been estimated that worldwide costs for Alzheimer’s may soon reach one trillion dollars. A cure would immediately impact the budget of every state in the country, not to mention millions of lives.
The Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, is committing resources and funding to the establishment of a national centre for research on brain diseases, connecting the best basic and translational neuroscientists with clinicians and industry. The purpose is to accelerate innovation and develop novel, innovative, and functional biomarkers for early detection and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. We welcome this initiative, but believe we should take it one step further and connect our efforts to the best centres worldwide in a public-private research partnership.
We have a solid scientific base. We know where in the brain Alzheimer’s starts - a region called the entorhinal cortex. We also know a lot about the symptoms of the disease. Patients experience memory problems - for example, they get lost in an unknown city or forget where they left their keys. Over time, this can have devastating effects since we are – in our whole personality – the sum of our memories.
Excitingly, basic science in animal models made some key breakthroughs in Norway, culminating in a Nobel Prize for medicine awarded in 2014 for the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex - the key elements of the brain’s navigational and memory system.
Stage one of the endeavour led to the Nobel Prize. We are now entering stage two and want to bring the Nobel Prize to the clinic and the society. The Nobel Prize-awarded findings on grid cells and the fundamental principles of neural coding are a possible window into understanding Alzheimer’s, and we want to bring that work into the clinic.
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Our recent work has already made the first steps. Firstly, we detected grid cell population activity in the human brain by using non-invasive brain imaging techniques (Doeller et al, Nature 2010). Secondly, and crucially, with these tools we can now also detect a dysfunction in the entorhinal system decades before potential disease onset in humans at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease (Kunz et al, Science 2015).
So what are the next steps? Our new research centre, the Braathen-Kavli Center at NTNU, will pursue translational neuroscience research investigating firstly the key neural coding principles in the human brain and secondly, conditions of the breakdown of neural coding in Alzheimer’s.
We will establish a National Research Centre on Brain Diseases and we invite the best neuroscientists, clinicians, funders, and industry to join us in a collaborative approach to tackle and defeat Alzheimer’s disease. We welcome the World Economic Forum as a neutral platform for setting up such a public-private partnership.
This article is part of a series by the Global Future Council on Neurotechnology and Brain Sciences.