Causes of Alzheimer’s and Dementia
This year has seen some major developments in our understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s and dementia. While the origins of both conditions are complex, a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, a greater knowledge of what triggers the development of these devastating conditions may help researchers as they work toward a cure.
Brain inflammation may be a cause, not a symptom, of dementia
Researchers from the University of Adelaide have discovered that inflammation may be a cause of dementia and Alzheimer's Disease.
Previously, scientists believed that brain inflammation was a by-product of the damage done by protein aggregates. However, the failure of recent clinical drug trials which reduce the production of those proteins prompted researchers to look for another cause.
Professor Robert Richards and his team at Adelaide's School of Biological Sciences have found evidence to suggest that sufferers of Alzheimer's and dementia may be genetically susceptible to inflammatory damage to the brain, which can cause cell death.
This may be good news, as reducing the cell inflammation might result in an improvement to symptoms. "With this new understanding of the disease, we now need to test existing anti-inflammatory drugs for their effectiveness in treating dementia," remarked Richards.
Dementia may start in the womb
Only one in 20 dementia sufferers have a family history of related conditions. So is there a genetic cause of dementia?
A team of researchers at the University of Cambridge hypothesized that non-inherited dementia might be the product of somatic gene mutations - in other words, “spelling mistakes” in the DNA code that take place as the brain develops in utero.
By combining DNA sequencing with mathematical modeling, the team found that spontaneous (rather than inherited) errors in the DNA occurred in 27 out of the 54 brains they studied, suggesting that many cases of dementia, and other conditions like Parkinson’s, may indeed be the result of naturally-occurring genetic mutations taking place in the womb.
Diagnosis and treatment
This past year we’ve also seen significant progress in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, as well as some major leaps forward in using existing drugs to treat symptoms. Some researchers believe that they may have found a way to prevent the disease from ever occurring.
Artificial intelligence algorithms can predict Alzheimer’s Disease
The British Alzheimer's Society has been testing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions in conjunction with brain imaging, and have found promising results. A small study suggested that AI could help brain imaging technology predict the development of Alzheimer’s years before a medical diagnosis would be possible. The researchers are now recruiting a larger test pool to see if a phone app could be used to spot the early signs of dementia.
Diabetes drugs might help Alzheimer’s sufferers
Scientists at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine have reported that drugs developed to maintain and boost blood flow in diabetes patients, such as metformin, might also be beneficial for Alzheimer’s symptoms. Some medical professionals have suggested that Alzheimer’s might be caused by the body’s failure to correctly process glucose, earning the disease the nickname “Type 3 diabetes.” Excessive glucose damages cells in the brain - brains which don’t process glucose well tend to have more beta-amyloid plaques and tau “tangles”, two of the signs of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s patients treated with diabetes drugs showed considerably fewer abnormal gene expressions in their brains than the control condition, suggesting that this treatment might help slow the progress of the disease.
An existing Alzheimer’s drug may prevent the onset of disease
Recent findings by the University of Virginia suggest that taking memantine (a medication used for treating Alzheimer’s symptoms) before symptoms develop might actually prevent potential Alzheimer’s sufferers from developing the disease.
Professor George Bloom, of the University of Virginia, who supervised the study, argues that “the best hope for conquering this disease is to first recognize patients who are at risk, and begin treating them prophylactically with new drugs and perhaps lifestyle adjustments that would reduce the rate at which the silent phase of the disease progresses."
Up to half of all cases of Alzheimer’s could be caused by herpes
A study published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience suggests that carriers of the HSV1 virus (that causes cold sores) are significantly more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. Even though current findings only prove a correlation between herpes and Alzheimer’s, not a causative link, study author Professor Ruth Itzhaki of Manchester University argues that these findings “greatly justify usage of anti-herpes antivirals — which are safe and well-tolerated — to treat Alzheimer's disease.”
Diet and Lifestyle
The link between lifestyle factors and the development of Alzheimer’s or dementia has been long established. However, recent research has revealed some unexpected dietary allies in the fight against Alzheimer’s – MSG and alcohol.
MSG can help preserve cognitive function
A recent investigation into the impact of monosodium glutamate on the cognitive function of dementia sufferers seems to suggest that MSG might improve some areas of cognitive function.
Despite many health concerns about MSG, a common food additive, the researchers reported that “it seems MSG may activate the hippocampus and improve memory.” Although it is not yet clear why, the researchers suggested that MSG might improve zinc absorption, which in turn improved patients’ appetites and encouraged them to eat a healthy diet.
Drinking too much alcohol increases the risk of dementia - but moderate drinking can be a good thing
A 23-year research study has revealed that moderate drinking can benefit brain health. Excessive drinking has long been known to correlate with dementia, but the results of this joint study by Inserm and UCL have also shown that moderate drinking (defined as fewer than 14 units of alcohol a week) might have some positive effects on cognitive function.
The researchers caution however that these findings “should not motivate people who do not drink to start drinking, given the known detrimental effects of alcohol consumption for mortality, neuropsychiatric disorders, cirrhosis of the liver, and cancer.”
If you have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, or are caring for a loved one with dementia, you are not alone. View more articles here or contact Rehab Select today to find out how we can help.