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Faye Flam

Drugs Can't Cure Alzheimer's. Could They Prevent It?

Researchers hope experimental drugs could one day ward off the disease in healthy people -- and avert a public-health disaster.
Plaque checkup.

Plaque checkup.

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

It didn’t take long to discover there was some hype behind the latest drug being touted as the great hope for Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier this summer, the journal Nature staged a press conference extolling the merits of an experimental drug called aducanumab, made by the biotech giant Biogen. CNN reported that the drug might be “a game-changer,” while The Independent called it “a breakthrough” that left one scientist “trying not to get too excited.”

Other scientists were trying not to get too angry. The headlines could raise false hopes for patients and their families, they said, since there’s little evidence the drug can reverse dementia. But some saw a silver lining: Even if the experimental drug isn’t a cure, there’s reason to believe something like it might ward off Alzheimer’s disease in healthy people, sort of the way statins are thought to prevent heart attacks. And preventive therapy for the brain could help avert what many experts see as an impending disaster: By 2050, there will be 32 million people over the age of 80 in the U.S., and unless something big changes, about 16 million will have Alzheimer’s disease.