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Brussels, 21 September 2000

Progress against Alzheimer's disease

On the occasion of World Alzheimer's day, the European Commission reports on its research activities in this area. Diseases of this type are a central target in the Ageing Population key action of the EU's Quality of Life programme. In fact six EU-funded projects were launched this year with a total EU support of 2 million over 3 years. The ultimate aim of the projects is to diagnose, prevent, delay the onset or treat Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's disease is the leading cause of dementia among the elderly, and places an increasing medical, social and economic burden on the European society.

Alzheimer's disease and related dementia affect about 5% of persons aged 65 to 70 years in the European Union, and over 20% of those aged 85 and above. The disease mainly consists in a progressive decline in cognitive and intellectual functions, such as memory and judgement. Diagnosis is often difficult, in particular in the early stages, which makes it difficult to distinguish from other treatable diseases. There is currently no effective treatment or means to prevent or delay the onset of the disease. The global cost of Alzheimer's disease to EU nations is therefore very high, and also includes a large social and economic burden and distress for families and carers. Due to demographic changes in Europe, the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease and the resulting costs are likely to increase dramatically over the next decades.

Alzheimer's disease is therefore an important topic of the key action on "The ageing population and disabilities" of the European Union's Fifth Framework Programme. The multidisciplinary projects recently launched with EU support combine aspects ranging from the understanding of the fundamental molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying the disease to testing potential protective strategies and clinical applications. Understanding the mechanisms is indeed essential to design effective therapies and perhaps new diagnostic tools.

Five of the 6 projects seek to understand the mechanisms involved in neurodegeneration and complement each other by studying various aspects of these mechanisms. Some focus on the amyloid precursor protein (APP) and presenilins, or on developing animal models of the disease. Others focus on the role of CNS cells other than neurones (astrocytes and microglial cells), whereas most research has concentrated on neurones up to now, and will investigate the inflammatory hypothesis of neuronal lesion. All aim at identifying and testing potential therapeutic strategies, for instance anti-inflammatory drugs.

Two pharmaceutical industries are already involved as partners in two projects and others will be involved in others when new potential therapeutic targets are identified.

One project focuses on the needed improvement of cost-effective early diagnosis of dementia and on the differential diagnosis among the various types of dementia. Differentiating Alzheimer's disease from other dementias is indeed important, since some of the latter can be treated. This project will essentially try and define widely available diagnostic procedures, by comparison to positron emission tomography (PET), a little available and expensive non-invasive metabolic imaging technique.

These six new projects on Alzheimer's disease are complementary and will provide a critical mass to allow the study of various aspects so as to have an impact on this disease, the social and economic importance of which will continue to grow. They aim at defining and designing future rational and effective prevention and/or treatment of Alzheimer's disease and to improve the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of early diagnosis and differential diagnosis. These projects should therefore contribute to the improvement of the quality of life of the ageing population.

For further information, please contact:

Philippe Jehenson, Quality of Life programme, Research DG
Fax: +32.2.295.53.65
E-mail : philippe.jehenson@ec.europa.eu

Michel Claessens, Communication Unit, Research DG
Fax: +32-2-295.82.20
E-mail: michel.claessens@ec.europa.eu

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PRESS RELEASES | 22.09.2000