Salk scientist fighting for memories


Local researcher says cure will come for Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease can be cured, believes David Schubert, a professor at the Salk Institute, which is internationally renowned for its groundbreaking basic research in the biological sciences.

That conviction perhaps explains why Schubert continues conducting research into Alzheimer’s and other age-related illnesses after more than 40 years of bending his will to that task.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a brain disorder named for German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906 when he noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are considered signs of AD, which is a progressive, irreversible neurological disorder.

Scientists also have found other brain changes in people with AD. Nerve cells die in areas of the brain that are vital to memory and other mental abilities, and connections between nerve cells are disrupted. There also are lower levels of some of the chemicals in the brain that carry messages back and forth between nerve cells. AD may impair thinking and memory by disrupting these messages.

Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes AD. There probably is not one single cause, but there are several factors that affect each person differently. Age is the most important known risk factor for AD. The number of people with the disease doubles every five years beyond age 65.

One of many questions scientists like Salk’s Schubert are struggling to answer is, are the brain cells of Alzheimer’s victims completely dead and therefore the information they contain lost all together? Or is it just that the nerve passageways are so impaired by the disease that an AD patient can no longer consciously recall the information in their memories?

“Certainly, in the later stages of the disease they’re gone: They’re all dead, there’s no way they can be reversed,” said Schubert. “The trick in the field is to find a way to pick up Alzheimer’s at an early stage. The idea is to get drugs to stop the cell death, the toxic issues that are occurring in the brain at an early stage. If you can maintain that early stage, not have it get worse, you are more or less curing the diseased patient early-on. The goal is to delay the disease five years. If you’re able to do that, essentially, you’ve cured most of it.”

But presently, there is no such cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Severaldifferent drugs are used to treat the malady, but none thus far has held out much hope for anything like a real cure. “None of the drugs cure anything at all,” said Schubert. “All they do is slow things down a little bit. They don’t stop the disease. They just improve the symptoms to some extent and only for a short period of time, usually.”

But scientists remain hopeful that a cure will, ultimately, be found. “There’s a good chance of it,” noted Schubert. “A lot of stuff is in clinical trials right now, a lot of different alternatives. There’s a vaccine which had some promise early-on that’s still being tested, as well as a number of other drugs.”

Schubert admitted there have been “a lot of serious mistakes” made by drug companies trying to develop drugs that purport to have a positive impact on AD. But the quest continues.

“A major aspect of our lab work at Salk involves cellular neurobiology,” said Schubert. “We’re working with natural compounds in fruits and vegetables, modifying those chemically, trying to get better drugs from them. We have some things we think are going to work. It’s a matter of getting funding for this, putting more money into it.”

Funding for medical research into diseases such as Alzheimer’s, pointed out Schubert, is a big problem right now as the cash-strapped federal government struggles with other vexing issues.

“Most of the funding comes from the National Institute of Health,” said Schubert. “That budget has been basically flat for five years or so. It’s a big problem. There should be more of an effort into trying to get better research in this area. It’s very difficult.”

Though declining memory capability is normal in people as they grow older, there are clear warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, more than just simple lapses in memory. People with Alzheimer’s experience difficulties communicating, learning, thinking and reasoning - problems severe enough to have an impact on an individual’s work, social activities and family life.


Local Alzheimer’s Association

Local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Local Support Groups

A listing provided by the Alzheimer’s Association of local support groups.

Memory Walk 2008

Oct. 25, 2008 at Balboa Park

All contributions of $95 or more will earn participants a 2008 Memory Walk T-shirt. Every contribution helps to provide support and assistance to area families and advance research for a cure. Forming a team for the Memory Walk can enhance the participants experience and multiply the impact on the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s Association Senior Housing Finder

What the Alzheimer’s Association looks for in senior housing:

Dementia Care Listings:

The Association is constantly expanding the inclusion of specialized dementia care programs and services in its comprehensive national housing database. However, some housing providers with dementia care, have not provided this information which would enable them to show in a search result. Some housing providers do not provide dementia care at all. When you locate housing you may be interested in, it’s a good idea to call and ask about dementia care.

Care Services:

Assess all of the care needs of your loved one. If the person needs special care for Alzheimer’s disease, has a tendency to fall, or has other disabilities, you should make certain that the facility is trained to handle those conditions.


Look for housing that will be convenient for family and friends to visit. You will most likely want to be able to drop in and see that your loved one is happy and properly cared for.


Think about the things that would make the potential resident feel “at home.” Privacy, access to a phone, a TV in the room, a pleasant courtyard or garden, outings, and other amenities all add up to a higher quality of life.


What resources do you have available to pay for senior housing? A financial planner or estate attorney can help you understand your options.

Dementia Care Conference

This annual event for dementia care professionals features the latest developments in Alzheimer care and support.

When: August 24-27, 2008

Where: Hyatt Regency, Garden Grove, Calif. (Los Angeles Area)

Helping Children and Teenagers Understand Alzheimer’s

When a friend or family member has Alzheimer’s disease, children and teenagers may feel upset, confused or scared. Alzheimer’s can be puzzling because a person who has it often doesn’t look sick.

But when you spend time with people with Alzheimer’s you know that something very serious is wrong. They may forget things, ask the same questions over and over, or have trouble even finding the right words for things. Some people with Alzheimer’s may cry, become angry very easily or behave in ways that embarrass you. Sometimes the person may not remember who you are even if it is someone like a grandparent who knows you very well.

People with Alzheimer’s disease are not acting like this to be mean or because they don’t care about you anymore. Changes deep inside their brains are destroying the centers that control remembering, thinking and feeling. They are losing their ability to make sense out of the world.



provides resources to help you learn about Alzheimer’s disease and understand how it affects you. It’s important to know that you are not alone. Alzheimer’s changes the lives of everyone it touches.

If You Have Alzheimer’s

If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia, or if you are experiencing changes in your memory, this section is for you. The first thing you should know is that you are not alone. There is a lot of help and support available.

Join the Cause

Get Involved as an Advocate, Volunteer, Event Participant or Donor


Where to find care

A family’s story