Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease that usually begins gradually, causing a person to forget recent events or familiar tasks. The disease eventually leads to confusion, personality and behavior changes and impaired judgment. Communication becomes more difficult as the disease progresses, leaving those affected struggling to find words, finish thoughts or follow directions. Eventually, most people with Alzheimer's disease become unable to care for themselves.
An experimental drug derived from the saliva of the venomous Gila monster is one of a growing crop of new drugs that are being developed to improve memory and learning. The bite of the Gila monster, a native lizard to the southwest United States and Mexico, can be deadly but its saliva also contains a chemical which acts on a previously unknown receptor pathway in the brain that affects memory.
New York-based biotechnology company Axonyx Inc., which is developing the drug, Gilatide, plans to start human trials with it as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease later this year. A growing number of companies are probing the mechanisms of memory formation, hoping to find drugs that can help offset memory loss in patients with diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to depression, schizophrenia, stroke, Parkinson's and AIDS.