New Hope for Alzheimer's Sufferers?

ByABC News
April 15, 2005, 1:14 PM

April 18, 2005 — -- Alzheimer's disease, the neurological disorder that affects some 5 million Americans, may in some cases be preceded by an ailment called mild cognitive impairment. But some researchers are skeptical that MCI, marked by the progressive loss of memory, is even a real disorder.

"MCI is an arbitrary category on the continuum of cognitive aging," said Dr. Peter Whitehouse of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Whitehouse cautions that many misunderstood phenomena have been mistakenly labeled as illnesses. "Remember, homosexuality and hysteria used to be diseases -- and do not forget 'drapetomania,' the pre-Civil War disease that caused slaves to run away."

Criticism of the term MCI has become louder following the publication of a recent study involving Aricept, a drug used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

The research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that Aricept slows the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers believe Aricept, given to patients showing the symptoms of MCI, pushes back the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease by a year.

There is no test currently available that can make a definitive diagnosis of MCI. Only detailed patient histories, along with specific cognitive and psychological testing, can help physicians make a diagnosis of MCI.

Disagreement regarding the term MCI relates to its broad usage. Some feel that the term is too inclusive and may capture persons who just have a normal mental decline associated with aging.

Other experts suggest there may be an ulterior motive behind creating an MCI, or "early Alzheimer's," diagnosis.

"MCI is a marketing tool for drug companies," said Dr. Thomas Finucane, professor of geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

"They are taking advantage of the despair and heartbreak of caregivers who love family members with Alzheimer's, and selling billions of dollars worth of drugs that have no meaningful effect," Finucane said.