More than five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. That number will nearly triple by 2050 as the US population ages, with cost of care reaching $1.1 trillion—one in every three Medicare dollars. Still, there is no effective treatment for Alzheimer’s. “If we don’t address the need for treatment now, the economic burden will soon become unbearable,” says Li-Huei Tsai, Picower Professor of Neuroscience and director of the MIT Aging Brain Initiative. Harder to quantify is the burden on the quality of life of patients and their families. Together, these factors compel urgent action.
A multidisciplinary effort involving neuroscientists, biologists, computer scientists, economists, urban planners, clinicians, and engineers, the Aging Brain Initiative (ABI) aims to conquer Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by studying how the brain ages in health and decline. Tsai’s research has already yielded promising leads. In a recent experiment involving mouse brains, ABI researchers discovered that immune cells can play an important and even causative role in the progression of the disease. Identifying and charting the vast array of immune cells in the brain could lead them to novel targets for drug development and therapies. “We need to know how many different kinds of immune cells there are in the brain,” says Tsai. “Once we know that, we’ll know the best way forward.”