Today was the second day of the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014 in Copenhagen, where thousands of dementia researchers have gathered to discuss their latest results. Here is a round-up of just some of the day’s excellent sessions.
Understanding the causes of dementia
Last week in the newspapers were headlines about a potential new blood test for Alzheimer’s – co-funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. One of the proteins in the panel of 10 discovered is called clusterin. This morning we heard researchers discuss the latest thinking about what this protein does. Prof Simon Lovestone of Oxford University told the conference that he thinks the protein has a role within a chain of events that links the hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins, amyloid and tau. His team has been characterising this molecular process in more detail to try to identify targets for the development of new treatments.
Former ARUK PhD Student Jenny Lord also told us about her research into clusterin.
High blood pressure and Alzheimer’s
We also spoke to Dr Roxana Carare, a dementia researcher at the University of Southampton. Her research, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, has been investigating how high blood pressure could affect the molecular make-up of blood vessels in the brain and how this could contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s. You can hear Dr Carare summarise her research.
You may have read in the news about a potential test to detect Alzheimer’s using an eye exam. It seems that by peering into the eye, or more accurately, giving people eye-drops with a molecule that binds to amyloid clumps, signs of Alzheimer’s could be detected in a quick and easy manner. This was only a small study, so once larger trials have been carried out, it will be interesting to see whether this technique could be used alongside other detection techniques.
As well as talks on new drug treatments, researchers are also discussing non-drug treatments for dementia. We heard from researchers who were looking at how cognitive interventions such as brain training could help those with early memory problems.
Previous research has suggested that brain training techniques such as memory, planning and problem-solving games can increase a person’s ability to do that particular task. However, it’s remained unclear how that translates into everyday benefits for people with memory problems.
US researchers discussed new tasks they’d developed to be more representative of daily life, including matching faces to names and identifying the location of objects in a room. The team worked with people with early memory problems to help them develop cues to improve in these tasks – such as inventing reasons why an object may be where it is, to help them find it again more quickly a second time.
One of the main speakers was Dr Francine Goldstein from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, US, who reflected that while lots of research was underway on the importance of nutrition for health, very few of these studies focus on Alzheimer’s.
However, she showed evidence from trials where dietary interventions had a large effect on high blood pressure and diabetes – in some cases having greater effects than drug treatments for these conditions. The interventions generally involved a diet high in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish and low in red meats and salt. She spoke of the importance of extending these studies to see whether the volunteers would also have a lower dementia risk.
Dr Goldstein stressed that there are very few evidence-based dietary guidelines in dementia and data on benefits of particular nutrients has not been consistent. She said the best-way to improve this research is for teams to work together to carry out large studies in many people.
Alzheimer’s Research UK Senior Research Fellow Dr Sebastian Crutch presented his latest research to understand a rare visual form of dementia called posterior cortical atrophy. He has been comparing eye movements in people with PCA compared to people with typical Alzheimer’s to understand more about the visual problems experienced by people with PCA. He hopes his research will enable the team to work with engineers to develop technologies and visual aids to help people with PCA live better with their symptoms.
Dr Tim Shakespeare, who works with Dr Crutch, also presented his findings that brain connections linking the eyes with other areas of the brain are more affected in PCA than in typical Alzheimer’s. Hear him talk more about his work:
We’ve also been hearing more about research into frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a form of dementia that tends to affect people under the age of 65. Some families with FTD are also affected by motor neurone disease and researchers have identified a gene called C9orf72 responsible for these cases. One of the researchers responsible for discovering the gene told the conference about fascinating research to identify where the faulty gene originated from.
It appears that the faulty C9orf72 gene originated in Finland and was spread by the Vikings around Europe. This explains why these forms of FTD and motor neurone disease are more commonly found in countries invaded by the Vikings. Now researchers are working hard to find out why the faulty gene causes motor neurone disease in some individuals and FTD in others.
Check the blog for more of the latest dementia news tomorrow.
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