Abigail Klein Leichman
September 2, 2012, Updated June 25, 2013

The amount and quality of medical research coming out of Israel is quite astounding. Advances in treating cancer, asthma, diabetes, sepsis, neurological diseases such as ALS – Israeli scientists have made their mark in all these areas and many more.

So it’s not surprising that some of Israel’s best minds have been tackling the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), a fatal and progressive brain disorder that is the most common cause of dementia worldwide.

AD affects about one in 20 people age 65 or older, accounting for 60-80 percent of dementia cases. In 2010, AD afflicted 5.4 million people in the United States, where it is the sixth leading cause of death. One in eight Americans will develop the disease at some point, while more than six million are affected in Europe. About half of AD patients also suffer from depression, and up to 40% exhibit symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease as well.

To mark World Alzheimer’s Month during September, here are 10 ways the small Jewish state is contributing to solutions for a huge worldwide problem.

1. Ladostigil

Last May, Israel’s Avraham Pharmaceuticals began 26-week and 36-month Phase 2 clinical studies of ladostigil, an Israeli-developed drug candidate to treat mild cognitive impairment — one of the signs associated with the onset of senile dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

This “neuroprotective” drug, developed by Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ) and Prof. Moussa Youdim of the Technion Israel Institute of Technology based on an invention by HUJ Prof. Michael Chorev, relieves behavioral and psychological symptoms of AD including depression and anxiety. In lab animals, it also slows the progression of symptoms for sustained periods of time and actually modifies the pathology of the disease. The new trials will determine if it has the same effects in humans. Weinstock-Rosin also was the researcher behind Exelon, a widely prescribed drug to relieve Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin with Exelon. Photo by Nati Shohat/Hebrew University’s “Innovator’s Way” exhibition
Prof. Marta Weinstock-Rosin with Exelon. Photo by Nati Shohat/Hebrew University’s “Innovator’s Way” exhibition

2. NeuroAD

This electromagnetic stimulation system, developed by Yokneam-based Neuronix, is the first medical device in the world to receive approval for treating mild to moderate AD. It appears to change the course of the disease and allow patients to regain cognitive skills. Clinical trials in Europe and the United States are revealing that a few weeks of this non-invasive treatment deliver better measurable results than medications in cognitive improvement.

NeuroAD is based on a patent-pending technology that electromagnetically stimulates areas of the brain responsible for memory and learning, making them receptive to simultaneous tailored cognitive training.

NeuroAd by Neuronix.
NeuroAd by Neuronix.

3. ElMindA

The Herzliya-based company aims to revolutionize diagnosis, treatment and monitoring of AD and other brain disorders with its trademarked, non-invasive brain network activation (BNA) technology.

During the painless procedure, patients sit at a computer for 15 to 30 minutes performing a specific task many times (the repetition allows the device to sift out unrelated brain activity) while the device maps network activation points in the brain in the form of a three-dimensional image.

BNA is sensitive enough to show subtle differences in the severity of the condition from one day to another, and it can optimize drug-dosing decisions by monitoring the changes in brain network activities as the drug takes effect. It can also help identify patients best suited to test new drugs.

Elminda system

The ElMindA helmet.

4. Brainsway

Brainsway’s patented medical device for deep-brain electromagnetic stimulation is thought to help alleviate addictions and other brain disorders including AD.

The Brainsway device.
The Brainsway device.

The device consists of a helmet outfitted with an electromagnetic energy-emitting coil licensed exclusively to the company by the Weizmann Institute of Science and the US National Institutes of Health. The patient wears the helmet for about 15 minutes while sitting quietly, allowing the coil to determine what parts of the brain should be stimulated and how intensively. It can be activated at varying frequencies and patterns for therapeutic results over a course of time.

Trials are taking place at 22 centers throughout Europe, the United States, Canada and Israel including Harvard and Columbia universities.

5. Vaccines

Tel Aviv University researchers, led by neurobiologist Dan Frenkel, say their (not yet commercialized) two-in-one nasal spray vaccine can protect against both AD and stroke. The two are associated because people with AD are at increased risk of stroke due to vascular damage in the brain. The product appears to repair this damage by activating the body’s own immune system. The vaccine would be given as a nasal spray to people at risk or showing very early AD symptoms, as well as post-stroke patients.

Another AD immunotherapy is under development at NasVax in Ness Ziona. The company’s patented BBS technology, invented by Prof. Beka Solomon of Tel Aviv University, is based on antibodies that have been shown to prevent the progression of AD and to improve cognitive functions in animal models of AD. This approach was recently validated by genetic data on Icelanders with a certain mutation linked to decreased incidence of AD and improved cognitive function. BBS immunotherapy mimics the effect of that mutation.

6. Davunetide

Allon Therapeutics recently shared new research showing how its lead product candidate, the neuroprotective drug davunetide, prevents nerve-cell death. Co-founder Illana Gozes of Tel Aviv University  told colleagues at the 12th International Stockholm/Springfield Symposium on Advances in Alzheimer Therapy in May that the drug is currently being tested in a clinical trial on people with mild cognitive impairment. You can read her article in the International Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

7. Savion memory-enhancing training

The first computer program in the world designed to provide cognitive stimulation for people suffering from dementia was developed by occupational therapists at Melabev, a Jerusalem-area chain of day centers for AD patients.

Savion slows mental deterioration while maintaining and improving memory in early- and middle-stage victims of the disease. Verbal, numerical and geometrical exercises, plus memory-training tasks, are adjustable to match each user’s level.

In a study at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, AD patients using Savion for 30 minutes twice a week over four weeks showed improved cognition, language skills, memory and organizational aptitude. In response to global demand after its introduction in 2010, Savion is now available in a variety of languages.

8. Alzheimer’s Aid Dogs

A collie shorthair from Finland named Polly was trained in Israel as the world’s first specifically for people suffering from early-onset AD. Since then, more than 500 AA Dogs have placed with companions worldwide. The training program was devised by professional dog trainer Yariv Ben Yosef, social worker Daphna Golan-Shemesh and electrical engineer Avi Rabinovich.

While out for a walk, AA Dogs know to bring their masters back upon hearing the word “Home” — a codeword that the patient is feeling disoriented – or upon hearing a distress signal sent by a worried caregiver via SMS to a device worn by the patient. The pooches also keep depression at bay by playing with their companions.

9. Cinnamon extract

Cinnamon doesn’t only smell nice. Known to have powerful anti-viral properties, it also seems to slow down the progress of AD. Tel Aviv University doctoral student Anat Frydman-Marom found that the extract, dubbed CEppt by the TAU scientist who isolated it a decade ago, can delay the effects of five aggressive strains of AD-inducing genes, according to a multi-lab research paper she co-authored for the medical journal PLoS ONE.

In test tubes, and in flies and mice, CEppt dissolved the amyloid plaques known to lead to AD. One day the extract could be given as a food additive, drug or vitamin, to younger people to prevent AD later in life.

10. Fish oil

Tel Aviv University neurobiologist Daniel Michaelson has shown the effects of diet and environment on carriers of a gene called APOE4, which is present in half of all AD patients and in 15 percent of the general population. Eating foods high in omega-3 oils (such as fatty fish) and low in cholesterol appears to significantly reduce the negative effects of the gene.

Michaelson, who has been researching AD over the past 16 years, says the symptoms of carriers of APOE4 actually worsen when they are in a stimulating environment – the opposite of what is currently accepted wisdom about preventing AD. His nutritional studies indicate that a healthful diet may counteract the problem.

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