Alzheimer’s Disease: new research offers hope

English: PET scan of a human brain with Alzhei...
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There are more than 30 million people with dementia worldwide

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, the insidious fatal disease which slowly kills all your brain cells. Already the seventh leading cause of death in the US, it is soon to reach epidemic levels as the boomers becomes senior citizens. There are more than 30 million people with dementia worldwide, but by 2050, this figure will increase to over 100 million. Two sets of findings released in the last few days bring hope that the accelerating research effort will find better ways to treat the disease, delay its onset, or prevent it from developing. Most significantly, a simple and inexpensive eye test could aid detection and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s at an earlier stage than is currently possible and a “cocktail” of commonly available supplements has shown promise in improving memory and fighting Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease was named after German physician Alois Alzheimer, who first described it in 1906. In the subsequent century, we’ve learned a lot about Alzheimer’s but with the ageing of the global population, it is about to become an epidemic. Currently there are more than 30 million people with dementia worldwide. By 2050, this figure will increase to over 100 million.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50 to 70 percent of dementia cases. It destroys brain cells, causing memory loss and problems with thinking and behaviour severe enough to affect work, lifelong hobbies and social life. Alzheimer’s gets worse over time, and keeps destroying brain cells until there are none left. Accordingly, it is inevitably fatal with a mean life expectancy following diagnosis of approximately seven years. Today it is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States.

Eyesight check could also check your brain

The most novel concept to come out of the three sets of research published in the last week is from University College London, where researchers have demonstrated a new technique that enables retinal, and therefore brain cell death, to be directly measured in real time.

Few people realise that the retina is a direct, albeit thin, extension of the brain. It is entirely possible that in the future a visit to a high-street optician to check on your eyesight will also be a check on the state of your brain.

“The death of nerve cells is the key event in all neurodegenerative disorders – but until now it has not been possible to study cell death in real time”, said Professor Cordeiro, of the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology.

“This technique means we should be able to directly observe retinal nerve cell death in patients, which has a number of advantages in terms of effective diagnosis. This could be critically important since identification of the early stages could lead to successful reversal of the disease progression with treatment.”

“Currently, the biggest obstacle to research into new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases is the lack of a technique where the brain’s response to new treatments can be directly assessed – this technique could potentially help overcome that.”

The technique uses fluorescent markers that attach themselves to the relevant cells and indicate the stage of cell death. The retina is then observed using a customised laser ophthalmoscope. Until now, this kind of technique has only been used in cells in the lab, rather than in live animals. This research is therefore the first ever in vivo demonstration of retinal nerve cell death in Alzheimer’s Disease.

The method, demonstrated in an animal model, could not only refine diagnosis of neurodegenerative disorders and help track disease progress; it could also aid the assessment and development of new treatments.

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Although this paper outlines the technique in animal models (rats and mice), Professor Cordeiro’s team are further along with work using the same technique to detect and assess glaucoma, and will be conducting their first patient trials later this year.

Professor Cordeiro added, “The equipment used for this research was customised to suit animal models but is essentially the same as is used in hospitals and clinics worldwide. It is also inexpensive and non-invasive, which makes us fairly confident that we can progress quickly to its use in patients.

The UCL research was published this week in the journal Cell Death & Disease.

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