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Discovery & Development Drug Discovery

Alzheimer’s Treatment Timeline

Watch our timeline of drug development for Alzheimer’s disease here:

German physician Alois Alzheimer was the first to uncover Alzheimer’s disease after he encountered a patient (Auguste D) with memory loss and other symptoms that were considered strange at the time. Alzheimer paid for the patient’s stay at Frankfurt asylum. In return, he asked for the medical records and patient’s brain upon death. An autopsy of the brain in 1906 showed shrinkage and neurofibrillary tangles. The disease was named in 1910.

Inventions throughout the 1900s, including the electron microscope, empowered scientists to study the brain more closely. Measurement scales were also developed for assessing cognitive decline – but it wasn’t until the 1990s that drugs emerge – and they had limited benefits.

With research accelerating, there was hope that more effective new treatments – or even a cure – would soon be uncovered. This has not happened. Many clinical trials have met only with failure, leading several companies to pull resources from the neuroscience arena.

When aducanumab was approved by the US FDA to help reduce amyloid plaques in the brain, it was greeted with scepticism – a feeling that extended to other anti-amyloid monoclonals in development. Many experts felt there wasn’t enough evidence to justify the approval. The US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services set strict criteria for coverage for all anti-amyloid mAbs, while the European Medicines Agency refused a marketing authorization. 

And yet, data coming from lecanemab and donanemab have people excited. They are the first drugs to show that they can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease; the FDA fully approved Biogen and Eisai’s lecanemab in July 2023. Meanwhile, Eli Lilly’s donanemab received a complete response letter from the FDA in January 2023, but recently reported positive phase III trials results.

These drugs are far from perfect – there are serious side effects and efficacy is still limited – but they are still incredible milestones that prove drug development efforts for Alzheimer’s are not futile.

Check out our video for an overview of some of the key moments in Alzheimer’s drug development since 2000:

Read more about neuroscience in these articles

In Search of Lost Memory
An interview with researcher Peter St George-Hyslop – one of the most cited authors in the field of Alzheimer’s research

Getting on Target for Alzheimer’s
Authors explain why anti-amyloid mAbs are so exciting

Getting Smarter with Small Molecule Discovery
How one company is working to develop small-molecule treatments for Parkinson’s disease

Rejuvenating Alzheimer’s R&D
How can we encourage companies to pursue clinical research for CNS disorders?

Exploring the Bounties of the Brain
A look at progress being made in drug development for neuroscience

Bringing Alzheimer’s in from the Cold
Look back at our special feature on Alzheimer’s published in 2018

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About the Author
Stephanie Vine

Making great scientific magazines isn’t just about delivering knowledge and high quality content; it’s also about packaging these in the right words to ensure that someone is truly inspired by a topic. My passion is ensuring that our authors’ expertise is presented as a seamless and enjoyable reading experience, whether in print, in digital or on social media. I’ve spent fourteen years writing and editing features for scientific and manufacturing publications, and in making this content engaging and accessible without sacrificing its scientific integrity. There is nothing better than a magazine with great content that feels great to read.

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