7 things we learnt at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Research Conference
By Katy Stubbs | Friday 29 March 2019
Earlier this month, the Alzheimer’s Research UK Annual Research Conference took place in Harrogate. More than 500 delegates came together to share ideas and new findings. But what did we learn from the presentations and discussions?
- Diagnosis of dementia with Lewy bodies is improving.
Prof John O’Brien opened the conference by talking about his work to improve the diagnosis of dementia with Lewy bodies. Work by him and others spotted that rates of diagnosis varied across the UK, and that the lesser known symptoms of dementia with Lewy bodies may contribute to this.
As a result, they created a diagnostic toolkit to support doctors when diagnosing dementia, and have seen an improvement in how dementia with Lewy bodies is being diagnosed.
- Better heart health may be reducing the number of new dementia cases.
By pulling together data from several large studies, Prof Albert Hofman and his team from the US have shown that dementia rates have fallen in the US and Europe by 15% each decade over the last 30 years.
While this means that the risk of an individual developing dementia has fallen, we will still see a rise in the total number of people living with dementia due to our population getting older. Healthier lifestyles and improvements in heart health are thought to be driving these changes, but Prof Hofman warned that increasing levels of obesity may mean rates begin to rise again.
- Risk genes affect cells other than nerve cells.
“Identifying risk genes is like finding the edge pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and my work is all about filling in the pieces in the middle” says Fiona Calvert about her research. In her PhD project, Fiona is looking at the immune cells in the brain and working out whether they are affected by different Alzheimer’s risk genes.
We heard from her about how by identifying which genes exert their effect through immune cells, she is helping researchers to zero in on key proteins and cells. Explore how these genes cause damage in the diseases that cause dementia is already opening the door to new treatment approaches.
- Earlier diagnosis of dementia presents both opportunities and challenges.
A panel of researchers, doctors and advocates for people with dementia led a discussion on the benefits and challenges of early diagnosis of dementia. Taking questions from the audience, the discussion covered who would benefit from having an early diagnosis.
Many researchers felt it would help to improve the ability of clinical trials to measure the potential benefits of the medicines being tested. However, they acknowledged that until treatments able to slow down these diseases are available, many people may not see enough benefit to seek an early diagnosis themselves.
- Researchers are increasingly focussing on the brain’s immune system as a key player in dementia.
In year’s gone by, the immune system could be the elephant in the room at scientific conferences, but was central to many presentations given last week. Prof Hugh Perry spoke about our growing understanding of the dynamic nature of the immune system in the brain.
He described how approaches to either boost or suppress brain immune responses were too simplistic. He suggested that efforts should rather be made to keep the brains immune cells doing their normal housekeeping jobs. Other speakers touched on how our growing understanding of this area of biology is leading to innovative new drugs that are at the early stages of clinical trials.
- The eyes are the window to your brain.
As well as helping us to see the world around us, our eyes may also reveal changes happening in the brain. Dr Rimona Weil and her team have found that they can see changes in key cells in the retina in people with Parkinson’s disease.
Their work suggests that these changes could predict whether someone with Parkinson’s will go on to develop dementia symptoms. This insight from the eyes could helping to manage people’s condition and understand how symptoms could evolve over time in Parkinson’s.
- Dementia researchers love a good dog.
Away from the presentations, there was much excitement about the two security dogs at the Convention Centre. Delegates enjoyed interacting with Kel and Ace, and many took to Twitter to share their love of our faithful friends.