‘Alzheimer’s is NOT one disease’, scientist claims

‘Alzheimer’s is NOT one disease’: Scientists group the memory-robbing disorder into six different categories in a study that may bring us one step closer to a cure

  • Review of five studies with a total of 4,050 Alzheimer’s patients
  • Grouped patients according to how they scored on memory and language tests
  • Treating patients with the same drug may explain why dementia medicines fail 
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Alzheimer’s ‘is not one disease’ and can be grouped into six distinct categories, researchers have claimed. 

Scientists reviewed five existing medical studies which analysed more than 4,000 patients battling the memory-robbing disorder.

They discovered Alzheimer’s could be split into six different groups – depending on how badly patients were affected. And they all had genetic differences.

The 18-strong research team, from a host of prestigious universities, hope the findings will bring them one step closer towards an Alzheimer’s cure.

And they also claim the results could explain why the trials treating all patients with the same drugs often prove unsuccessful. 

Scientists revealed Alzheimer’s ‘is not one disease’ and can be grouped into six distinct categories. They hope this will bring us one step closer towards a cure (stock)

Attempts to stop the neurological disease in its tracks have so far failed as scientists remain unsure as to its exact cause.  

Alzheimer’s – the most common form of dementia – affects around 5.5million people in the US and 500,000 in the UK, figures show. 

The study involved researchers from Boston University, the Virginia Puget Sound Health Care System and Indiana University.  

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The project was led by Dr Shubhabrata Mukherjee, of the department of general internal medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

‘Alzheimer’s, like breast cancer, is not one disease,’ Dr Mukherjee said on the back of the findings. 

‘I think a good drug might fail in a clinical trial because not all the subjects have the same kind of Alzheimer’s.’

‘This study is not the end, it’s a start,’ Dr Mukherjee added of the findings, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.  

All of the participants had late-onset Alzheimer’s, the most common form of the disease – when someone is diagnosed at 65 or over.

After more than two years of attempts, the researchers managed to standardise the different studies’ cognitive test scores.

They all assessed the patients on four key factors – memory, language, ‘executive functioning’ and ‘visuospatial functioning’.

Executive functioning is the set of skills that enables a person to get things done, such as time management and paying attention to tasks.

Visuospatial functioning refers to the way a person relates visual information to the space around them. This is used when walking through a door to avoid bumping into the frame and when crossing the road to gauge the speed of a oncoming car.


After reviewing five studies with a total of 4,050 Alzheimer’s patients, US researchers revealed people with the disease can be divided into the following six categories:

  • Those who score equally on memory, language, executive functioning (skills that enable you to get things done, e.g. time management) and visuospatial functioning (how a person relates visual information to the space around them, e.g. when walking) tests 
  • Those who score worst in memory tests
  • Those who score worst in language tests
  • Those who score worst in visuospatial functioning tests
  • Those who score worst in executive functioning tests 
  • Those who score worst across two of the four tests 

The researchers then used the data to bracket the patients into six different types of Alzheimer’s.

Dr Mukherjee and colleagues found that 39 per cent of the patients scored poorly across all four factors. 

The next largest group, which 27 per cent of the participants were in, included those whose memory scores were substantially worse than their other results.

In the smaller groups, 13 per cent of the participants had language scores that were significantly lower than their other ones, while 12 per cent scored worse in visuospatial functioning.

Just three per cent of the participants scored substantially worse on their executive functioning tests than on the other three factors. 

Six per cent of patients were bracketed in the final group, which saw them score worse across two of the four factors.  

The researchers then analysed the DNA of 2,431 of the participants to determine if genetic subgroups exist between the different types of Alzheimer’s.

They found 33 specific locations throughout the patients’ genetic make-up that influence what group of Alzheimer’s they fit into. 

A variation of the APOE gene, which is very strongly associated with Alzheimer’s in Europeans, was found to be particularly linked to those with poor memories. 

Although tests can identify whether a person carriers the APOE gene, the researchers stress not everyone with the gene develops Alzheimer’s and some become ill even without it.  

Several years ago, the International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project Consortium published the largest genetic study of Alzheimer’s. 

They found around 20 DNA locations associated with the disease and classed it as just one disorder. 

The researchers hope their study will help towards a cure, which world leaders are hoping to achieve by 2025 – but an effective treatment has not even been developed.  

Study co-author Dr Paul Crane, from Washington University, said: ‘We have found substantial biological differences among cognitively defined subgroups of Alzheimer’s patients. The implications are exciting.’

Attempts to stop the memory-robbing disorder in its tracks have so far targeted the toxic build-up of the amyloid beta protein in the brains of patients. This gradually destroys neurons, causing memory loss and confusion.

However, last September, researchers at King’s College claimed that once these clumps have formed it is ‘too late for drugs’ to work.


Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink. 

More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death.


As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. 

That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason. 

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual. 

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.


  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call 


  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior 
  • Eventually lose ability to walk
  • May have problems eating 
  • The majority will eventually need 24-hour care   

 Source: Alzheimer’s Association

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