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Brainstorm Health: Alzheimer’s Cases to Skyrocket, Medical ‘Virtualists’, Sage Depression Drug

Hello, readers! This is Sy.

A National Institutes of Health-funded (NIH) study presents a sobering projection: The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment will hit 15 million by 2060, fueled by an aging population. And, by using a new kind of methodology which incorporates people at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, the researchers determined that about 6 million U.S. adults have Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment.

The new method of calculation may be more precise than current tactics and could present an opportunity to assess Alzheimer’s-prevention techniques. “For the first time, scientists have attempted to account for numbers of people with biomarkers or other evidence of possible preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, but who do not have impairment or Alzheimer’s dementia. People with such signs of preclinical disease are at increased risk to develop Alzheimer’s dementia,” wrote the NIH in a press release. “The researchers say they factored those rates of transition in their multi-state model; further, the model can estimate the impact of some possible prevention efforts on the number of future cases.”

Alzheimer’s is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In America and abroad, the condition (and other dementia and cognitive decline conditions) are expected to balloon in the coming decades—an ironic side effect of growing life expectancy across the globe. The trouble is that there aren’t really any drugs that tackle the root of Alzheimer’s rather than just its symptoms. Companies attempting to innovate in the space, like Eli Lilly and Merck, have been hit with costly failures (although Biogen is still marching forth in its efforts). And some scientists even disagree with each other about what, exactly, it is that should be targeted in the hunt for a cure.

The dearth of treatment options ups the ante for finding effective prevention techniques, whether they be diet, exercise, “brain games,” or other activities; but the first step in assessing those options is getting the numbers right—which is the broader goal of this new methodology.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Should digital doctors have their own medical specialty? New technologies bring with them new regulatory and training realities. And two New York Presbyterian doctors suggest the advent of telemedicine (and its expanding reach into new kinds of care) should be accompanied by a fresh kind of medical specialty. “We propose the concept of a new specialty representing the medical virtualist,” write Drs. Rahul Sharma and Michael Nochomovitz in JAMA. “This term could be used to describe physicians who will spend the majority or all of their time caring for patients using a virtual medium. A professional consensus will be needed on a set of core competencies to be further developed over time.” The “medical virtualists” would have intricate knowledge of the legal and ethical boundaries of virtual care, and be well-versed in things like “webside manner.” (JAMA)


Sage shares soar as depression drug nails a mid-stage trial. Sage Therapeutics shares are, once again, on a tear following a promising mid-stage clinical study of its depression drug. The stock was up 76% in Thursday trading. Depression drugs often fail or don’t affect certain patients; Sage’s experimental therapy, however, uses a different action mechanism from current depression treatments. The company also has a promising postpartum depression treatment on its hands, which could become the first-ever such therapy approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (Reuters)


Medicare, Medicaid could take a hit to fund tax cuts. House Speaker Paul Ryan says that Congress will begin focusing on cutting spending on health care programs for seniors and the poor, like Medicare and Medicaid, in order to cut the federal deficit. The deficit is projected to balloon by $1 trillion if the tax reform plans being mulled by the House and Senate pass, and GOP lawmakers have argued that welfare and safety net program cuts could be used to make up for some of that debt. (The Hill)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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