Scientists believe that they have discovered a possible explanation for how Alzheimer’s disease spreads in the brain, according to numerous media reports.
The Guardian newspaper has particularly picked up on this exciting study emanating from Cambridge University.
Researchers believe that gene patterns which are located in specific areas of the brain may help to explain why the disease tends to emanate in certain regions before later spreading.
Such patterns were located in the areas of healthy brains which were primed to produce certain proteins.
Scientists involved in the study believe that the natural defences on which the body relies become less able to prevent protein build-up as cells age, and this becomes apparent first in the areas most genetically primed for protein overgrowth.
While this is very much an embryonic theory, it is hoped in the future that it may be possible to target particularly vulnerable areas of the brain for Alzheimer’s treatment; thus making such efforts more efficient and effective.
The study was carried out by researchers from Cambridge University and received no specific funding.
It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Science Advances, which requires a subscription in order to access.
This was an experimental study comparing data from healthy human brains against data about which regions of the brain are affected in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers used data relating to 500 samples of tissue from the post-mortems of six healthy human brains, all from people aged 24 to 57, none of whom had Alzheimer’s disease.
They analysed 19,700 genes to see which affected protein expression in the brain.
Researchers found that neurones were less likely to express genes protecting against protein build-up, and more likely to express genes promoting protein growth, compared with other brain cells.
When comparing brain maps, those regions of the brain in which tissues were more susceptible to protein expression correlated well with the brain regions that first show signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers commented on their results in the study.
“Our results identify a quantitative correlation between the histopathological staging of AD [Alzheimer’s disease] and the specific expression patterns of the genes corresponding to the proteins that coaggregate in plaques and tangles.”
Findings related to immune response suggest inflammation should also be considered important, indicating that, “the vulnerability of specific tissues in AD may result from the sum of a number of factors, including genetic control of protein exprssion, natural defences against protein overgrowth, and the response of the immune system.”
This research offers an intriguing insight into one possible factor contributing to Alzheimer’s, but does not demonstrate any way of recognising who will develop the condition.
Additionally, scientists have no knowledge regarding a suitable manipulation of gene expression.
It is not even known whether protein plaques and tangles actually cause Alzheimer’s disease.
So any cure or effective treatment for the debilitating condition remains a long way off.
What can be said is that the latest research sheds light on the complex conditions which contribute to Alzheimer’s vulnerability.
New research indicates that brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s are significantly declining due to numerous lifestyle factors.
A study funded by the Medical Research Council indicates that such conditions have plummeted by over 20% in the last couple of decades.
Superior education on the matter coupled with healthier lifestyles have been cited as major reasons for this encouraging trend.
About 850,000 Britons have dementia but the new research, funded by the Medical Research Council, suggests the number could be as much as 300,000 higher if not for the dip in prevalence.
The study examined the extent of dementia in three regions of England, and compared results with findings from a similar study conducted 20 years ago.
Now that the research has been completed, the results will be presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
Carol Brayne, who led the study, highlighted some of the reasons behind the findings of the research.
“Later-born populations have a lower risk of prevalent dementia than those born earlier in the past century. Such reductions could be the outcomes from earlier population-level investments such as improved education and living conditions, and better prevention and treatment of vascular and chronic conditions.”
Although this particular study only examined the situation in England, it is also believed that the trends contained within it will be reflected across the European continent as a whole.
“In a review of dementia occurrence in five studies … we found none that supported headlines about dramatic increases in dementia.They report stable or reduced prevalence — despite ageing populations,” Brayne noted.
Although dementia can be caused by several different factors, Alzheimer’s is responsible for the majority of cases in the UK, totalling around 62% overall.
Vascular dementia, which is caused by restriction in the brain’s blood supply, accounting for 17%.
Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society, expressed his belief that lifestyle has a significant influence over the development of both Alzheimer’s and dementia, and cautiously welcomed the results of the study.
“Regular exercise, low alcohol consumption and not smoking significantly reduce the risk of developing vascular dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease too. People are increasingly aware of this, especially if other members of their family have developed the disease.”
As with many health trends, it is notable that although the proportion of people developing dementia is declining, the actual number of individual cases is stable owing to sufferers living longer
Many experts believe that dealing with dementia is the biggest health challenge facing the United Kingdom.
Research carried out by scientists at King’s College London suggests that playing online games can have a positive impact on reasoning and memory skills.
7,000 people over the age of 15 were tested by researchers, having initially been recruited through the BBC, Alzheimer’s Society and the Medical Research Council.
The extensive experiments took place over a six-month period, with results having implications for the future treatment of conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
As part of the study, participants were encouraged to play a 10-minute brain-training package on a regular basis.
Volunteers completed cognitive tests, including assessments of grammatical reasoning and memory, before the study began and again after six weeks, three months and six months.
Improvements were seemingly most evident when participants played the games included in the study on at least five occasions during each week.
Scientists have previously demonstrated that people who engage in complex occupations, or exercise their brains regularly with activities such as crosswords, tend to have lower rates of dementia.
The research team behind this new study believe that its findings could help preserve mental functions in older people, and ensure that debilitating conditions, and general decline in cognitive functions, are generally avoided.
Dr Anne Corbett, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, commented on the results, indicating that the research had been a worthwhile study.
“The impact of a brain training package such as this one could be extremely significant for older adults who are looking for a way to proactively maintain their cognitive health as they age. The online package could be accessible to large numbers of people, which could also have considerable benefits for public health across the UK.”
Corbett was also keen to put the research into context.
“Our research adds to growing evidence that lifestyle interventions may provide a more realistic opportunity to maintain cognitive function, and potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline later in life, particularly in the absence of any drug treatments to prevent dementia.”
Dr Doug Brown, from the Alzheimer’s Society, stated: “Online brain training is rapidly growing into a multimillion-pound industry and studies like this are vital to help us understand what these games can and cannot do. While this study wasn’t long enough to test whether the brain-training package can prevent cognitive decline or dementia, we’re excited to see that it can have a positive impact on how well older people perform essential everyday tasks.”
There are an estimated 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with this figure expected to rise to one-million by 2025.
Alzheimer’s Research UK has announced plans to launch a £30m Drug Discovery Alliance involving three flagship Drug Discovery Institutes at the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and UCL (University College London).
Each Drug Discovery Institute will have 90 new research scientists employed in state-of-the-art facilities to fast-track the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
With dementia affecting over 830,000 people in the UK and costing the UK economy £23bn a year, the Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Drug Discovery Alliance provides a timely boost to the search for effective treatments for those with the condition.
“Academic research is a goldmine of knowledge about diseases such as Alzheimer’s, and by tapping into the innovation, creativity, ideas and flexibility of scientists in these universities, we can re-energise the search for new dementia treatments”, said Dr Eric Karran, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “Working in universities and hospitals alongside people affected by dementia and their families, academic researchers are best placed to take research breakthroughs and progress them into real world benefits for the people that so desperately need them.”
During the G8 Dementia Summit in November 2013, health leaders from across the world pledged their support for a disease-modifying therapy for dementia by 2025. One of these leaders was the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt.
Commenting on the Drug Discovery Alliance, Mr Hunt said: “Dementia can be a devastating condition and I am committed to doing all that we can to help the thousands of people who live with it. These world-leading Institutes will bring new hope to people with dementia by boosting innovation and increasing collaboration so that we can achieve our aim of finding a cure or disease-modifying therapy.”
Dr Karran: “We are committed to making this landmark initiative a success and are confident that the Drug Discovery Alliance will be a scientific tour-de-force. We have ambitions to grow the Alliance over time, hopefully attracting new Institutes from across the globe to become the biggest joined-up dementia drug discovery effort in the world.”