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Experimental Vaccine Raises Hopes in the Fight Against Alzheimer's Disease

At a packed meeting of world Alzheimer's experts, the talk today was of a novel but potentially groundbreaking way to treat the disease.

Researchers say they're cautiously optimistic about a vaccine that has now been developed and tested. It successfully restores brain function in mice with Alzheimer's. It is too soon to tell if it will work the same way in people. But results from early human trials show it is safe for human use.

Researchers have determined Alzheimer's disease is caused by the build-up of protein based plaques in the brain, which disrupt normal brain function. The vaccine works by stimulating the immune system to target and attack those plaques, causing them to shrink or even disappear--allowing the brain to do its job normally.

If it works in people it could be used at the first sign of symptoms to slow or even halt progress of the disease--a potentially perfect tool for someone like Karen Dewar and her family. Dewar first started forgetting things at age 49. Her husband knows what's ahead.

Dewar takes a drug called Aracept. It's one of three commonly prescribed medications that can preserve brain function, but doctors like Dr. Steven DeKosky say one day a vaccine could even prevent the disease.

"If we were able to detect people at high risk and give them something that was safe," says DeKosky, "it would be tremendously effective and tremendously helpful."

For now, a vaccine remains the next great hope. But in the case of Alzheimer's--a disease half of all Americans can expect to get if they live to be 85--hope can be good medicine too.

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