Alzheimer's: A Disease of Our Time, Part II

As the population ages, the United States is facing an epidemic of Alzheimer's Disease. Four million Americans already have it and there is no cure. Current treatments only slow it down. So, is there any help on the way?

CBS medical correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin searched for answers for tonight's installment of our special Eye on America series.

Though she can still hit a mean backhand, Ruth Becker is in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease with limited ability to perform every day tasks. For her, treatment options are limited. She takes a drug widely prescribed for Alzheimer's called "Aracept," which according to her doctor...has slowed her mental demise:

"It is just being able to buy some time, being able to restore some semblance of stability to the lives of people suffering from this disease," says Norman Relkin at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "I think it's a tremendous contribution."

But Sue and Don Miller are interested in more than buying time. Don was diagnosed at 55. "Previous to Alzheimer's I had a very sharp mind," says Don Miller. "I had a high IQ which basically sort of took a large dive."

Don built a career as a financial manager only to find that he could no longer make change or pay bills. The doctor's diagnosis was a shock!

"I remember going to the second visit and he looked at us and said 'have you two considered Alzheimer's?' and I think you could have picked us up off the floor," says Sue Miller. "That's a disease of the elderly!"

While most people are diagnosed in their eighties, Alzheimer's disease also strikes in middle age. Faced with a long drawn out loss of memory and mind, people in their fifties are looking to the frontier of experimental medicine for a miracle. A new vaccine is the next best hope, but it is still years away.

The Miller's are considering a first of its kind gene therapy experiment being conducted at the University of California at San Diego. The procedure involves injecting a naturally occurring protein called nerve growth factor deep into the brain. Scientists believe nerve growth factor has the potential to revive dying brain cells...and slow or even reverse aging.

It's been tried with success in monkeys. Dr. Mark Tuszynski who begins human trials this January, shows how the brains of aging animals look before and after treatment. New cells and connections have grown as a result of the nerve growth factor.

"When we look at the effects of these growth factors in animals after injury in the context of aging, their effects are remarkable," says Tuszynski. "If we see a fraction of that translate into humans we may have something here."

But it's a big IF. The experiment means drilling holes into Don's brain: risking pain, bleeding even death. "I don't know that I'm a risk taker," says Sue Miller. "But on the other hand, there's nothing and that's what's so frustrating here, there's nothing."

The Miller's children Brian and Laua are dead against it: distraught that a breakthrough is in sight but not at hand. "Everything I've heard is ten years down the road, or fifteen years down the road," says Brian Miller. "For us, but nothing for my Dad."

For the Miller's, it's an agonizing choice between subjecting Don to the certain slow march of Alzheimer's or the uncertain risky race of medical exploration. Neither offers comfort. Tomorrow, we report on the life of the Alzheimer's caregiver. I am Elizabeth Kaledin reporting for Eye on America.

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