Many expect a friend or relative diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease to experience severe memory loss, but fewer realize that the disease can bring additional symptoms of aggression and violence, said Dr. Peter Davies, director of the Litwin-Zucker Research Center for the Study of Alzheimer’s Disease, a division of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset.
“Those features are terribly troublesome to families, and they’re extremely difficult to treat,” Davies said. “There is no good explanation of why they happen.”
Up to 50 percent of Alzheimer’s patients exhibit agitated behavior, according to the Geriatric and Mental Health Foundation.
Some of that behavior escalates into violence.
Davies and his colleague at Litwin-Zucker, Dr. Jeremy Koppel, received a $500,000 grant from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America last Monday to find out why the aggression occurs and to develop a treatment for it.
Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, said the organization is “proud to partner with Dr. Davies” for what he called “a critical study.”
Davies has given the keynote speeches at two educational conferences organized this year by the Alzheimer’s Foundation, including one that took place two weeks ago at the Marriott Hotel in Melville, Fuschillo said
The grant will fund five years of research, during which the scientists will model the disease in mice and experiment with possible treatments for those exhibiting aggressive behavior.
The mice provide the scientists with a “very rapid way to screen for new treatments and new ways to address this problem,” Davies said.
“You can screen hundreds and hundreds of drugs in a very short space of time,” he added.
The feature of Alzheimer’s most likely to cause the violence is a brain formation called a tangle, which is made up of a common neurological protein called tau, Davies said.
In a tangle, tau takes on an abnormal, disruptive shape.
The combination of tangles and an excess of the brain chemical dopamine is a “very dangerous combination,” Davies added.
The current treatment for the aggressive symptoms is a regimen of antipsychotic drugs like those prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia, Davies said.
Such drugs, however, can hasten the death of an elderly person with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a very bad situation because on the one hand there is the patient’s troublesome behavior and on the other hand, if you try to treat it with antipsychotics, you’re putting a patient’s life at risk,” Davies said. “It’s terribly troublesome. Families get really desperate because of this.”
Citing preliminary research, Davies said he thinks the study could result in a treatment that reduces violent symptoms and alleviates their intensity.
“If patients do become agitated, it will be much more mild than it currently is,” he said.
“We hope to have a treatment by the end of the five years.” If a treatment is discovered, it would then have to undergo a multiyear testing and certification process before it becomes available to patients.
While passionate about the research, Davies has not had personal contact with a friend or relative with the disease.
“The good news is no member of my family has developed Alzheimer’s disease,” he said. ‘‘The bad news is people in my family generally don’t live long enough to develop Alzheimer’s.”