A new international study is looking for the key to a question that terrifies some families -- how do you stop or slow memory problems from turning into Alzheimer's disease.
The Memory Assessment Clinic at the Augusta Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers is one of 80 centers in the United States and Canada studying those who suffer from mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Psychological tests will be used to determine whether a person has the impairment.
Edward Zamrini, acting chief of the VA's Alzheimer's/Dementia Care Program, compares it to remembering only five items on the grocery list when you used to remember 10 easily, a regular and persistent memory loss that hampers your daily life.
"Enough to be of concern to them or their loved ones but not enough to say that this person can't function at the level of independence any more," Dr. Zamrini said.
About 12 percent of those with the problem go on to develop Alzheimer's each year, and for now, there is no way to stop it, said Dr. Zamrini, who will direct the study locally.
"We hope treatments that are currently used for Alzheimer's may benefit people at this very early stage," Dr. Zamrini said.
In the double-blind study, patients will either receive the Alzheimer's drug donepezil, high doses of Vitamin E or a placebo.
Those who do go on to develop Alzheimer's during the study will be given donepezil, known by the prescription name Aricept, Dr. Zamrini said.
Aricept is one of the few drugs shown to help preserve memory function in Alzheimer's, and Vitamin E has been shown to help delay
deterioration from the disease and delay the need for nursing home care, Dr. Zamrini said.
"At least theoretically, if Vitamin E has this neuroprotective effect, by giving it in the early stages, we might be able to delay Alzheimer's and we might be able to delay nursing home placement," Dr. Zamrini said.
Aricept, known generically as donepezil, is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor and helps elevate the levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain.
"(W)e do not know if it will have a protective effect against developing Alzheimer's," Dr. Zamrini said. "But it may help at least some of the people think more clearly for longer.
"In either case, if Vitamin E and donepezil turn out to be effective in delaying a clinical diagnosis of Alzheimer's, then everybody stands to benefit."
The study will also give researchers the chance to look for other potential risk factors for developing Alzheimer's, such as oxidative levels.
As cells use oxygen, they can create a dangerous byproduct known as oxidative free radicals that can damage cells and DNA. This damage is thought to play a role in developing the disease, Dr. Zamrini said.
On Friday, Dr. Zamrini also received $11,000 from the American Legion to begin screening veterans in the primary care clinic with no obvious signs for memory problems, hoping to uncover some memory problems early or that otherwise would go undetected.
For people like Ruth Czado, a volunteer at the Augusta Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association who lost a husband to the disease, these kinds of studies are hope for the families.
"There's always hope that one of these studies will bring something up," she said.