Hitting a Nerve

Alzheimer’s disease: What is ‘clinically meaningful’?


A recent report in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association suggested that, at least for now, we need to lower the bar in Alzheimer’s disease drug trials.

Their point is that there’s no consensus on “clinically meaningful benefit.” Does it mean a complete cure for Alzheimer’s disease, with reversal of deficits? Or stopping disease progression where it is? Or just slowing things down enough that it means something to patients, family members, and caregivers?

The last one is, realistically, where we are now.

Dr. Allan M. Block, a neurologist in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Dr. Allan M. Block

The problem with this is that many nonmedical people equate “treatment” with “cure,” which isn’t close to the truth for many diseases. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s even trickier to figure out. There’s a disparity between imaging (which suggests something that should be quite effective) and clinical results (which aren’t nearly as impressive as the PET scans).

So when I prescribe any of the Alzheimer’s medications, I make it pretty clear to patients, and more importantly the patient’s family, what they can and can’t expect. This isn’t easy, because most will come back a month later, tell me their loved one is no better, and want to try something else. So I have to explain it again. These people aren’t stupid. They’re hopeful, and also facing an impossible question. “Better” is a lot easier to judge than “slowed progression.”

“Better” is a great word for migraines. Or seizures. Or Parkinson’s disease. These are condition where patients and families can tell us whether they’ve seen an improvement.

But with the current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease we’re asking patients and families “do you think you’ve gotten any worse than you would have if you hadn’t taken the drug at all?”

That’s an impossible question to answer, unless you’re following people with objective cognitive data over time and comparing them against a placebo group, which is how these drugs got here in the first place – we know they do that.

But to a family watching their loved ones go downhill, such reassurances aren’t what they want to hear.

Regrettably, it’s where things stand. While I want to strive for absolute success in these things, today it’s simply not possible. Maybe it never will be, though I hope it is.

But, for now, I agree that we need to reframe what we’re going to consider clinically meaningful. Sometimes you have to settle for a flight of stairs instead of an elevator, but still hope that you’ll get to the top. It just takes longer, and it’s better than not going anywhere at all.

Dr. Block has a solo neurology practice in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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