American scientists are recruiting seniors to take part in government-funded testing aimed at determining if a component in red wine may help combat Alzheimer’s disease.

The first-of-a-kind study will examine whether or not resveratrol can alter or delay the destruction of the brain in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s is not an overnight process,” according to Laurie Ryan, program director for the National Institute on Aging’s Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Trials program. She told reporters that “symptoms don’t appear until years after the disease has started. So the thought is if we can delay it from starting or progressing, we can add quality years to the end of life.”

NIH officials indicate 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, a fatal illness that has no treatment or cure.

The nation will spend an estimated $200 billion this year on caregiving for people with Alzheimer’s, including $140 billion for Medicare and Medicaid, according to an annual report from the Alzheimer’s Association. The report predicts costs will reach $1.1 trillion by 2050.

The progressive mind-wasting disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and the only cause of death among the top 10 that cannot be prevented or cured, association officials said.

Throughout a year-long period, participants in the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study will report to some two dozen nationwide sites that are taking part in the new research program. They will be given either a placebo or capsules of pure resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, baking and dark chocolate, blueberries and both raw and boiled peanuts.

Studies on non-humans have shown resveratrol activates a gene that protects the body and brain from aging. The greatest risk for Alzheimer’s patients is aging, scientists point out. Researchers will do baseline tests to identify biological markers of the disease and then other tests to determine if the disease is progressing.

By the end of the current study, participants will be given 1,000 mg of resveratrol twice daily. That dose can’t be duplicated by drinking wine or eating fruit or chocolate, study officials noted.

“We’ll be testing levels equivalent to drinking 1,000 bottles of wine a day,” stated Georgetown University Medical Center’s R. Scott Turner, director of the Washington, D.C., based study. “We’re trying mostly to determine the safety of that (dose) ... once we determine that, other studies will still have to be done before anything could be developed” ... for the general populace.

In explaining what researchers are looking for in the study, Turner said in examining the brains of people with and without Alzheimer’s, the neurons in the brain of those diagnosed with the disease die off at a faster rate and shed a protein called tau. Tau forms into tangles, he said, wreaking havoc with the synapses required for cognitive functions. Researchers are trying to determine if neuron loss decreases in people taking resveratrol.

In addition, NIH officials noted several pharmaceutical firms are studying an antibody that attacks plaques that accumulate in the brain, removing them like the statins that devour bad cholesterol.

Government officials indicate the country is investing more in Alzheimer’s research. The Health and Human Services Department added $50 million to the research coffers this year and plans to add $80 million more in 2013. The recent cash infusion boosted research funding to $498 million this year.

Finding a way to slow down the progression of the disease — let alone a cure — will require $2 billion annually in research funding however, maintains William Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association. He points out the last successful research effort looking for a symptom of the disease was in 2003. “You can’t make progress with the sort of investments made to date.”

The recent report on Alzheimer’s shows that Medicare payments for people with Alzheimer’s are nearly three times higher — and Medicaid payments 19 times higher —than for seniors not suffering from dementia.

“For every $28,000 we spend on Medicare and Medicaid we spend about $100 on research,” Theis noted in the report.

The goal of the Alzheimer’s Association is to find a way to treat and prevent the disease by 2025.

I’ll drink to that.

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