Research round-up: AAIC Day Three

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By Science News Team | Wednesday 16 July 2014

The sun was shining yesterday at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014 in Copenhagen, and we heard more interesting sessions about the latest dementia research. Here is a round-up of some of the topics discussed.

Understanding the basics

Improving our knowledge of the brain, how it works and how it goes wrong to cause dementia is key to ultimately improving quality of life for those affected.

We spoke to Dr Claire Michel about her research using advanced microscope systems to study how the Alzheimer’s protein tau moves from cell to cell. Understanding tau and developing ways to stop its build-up is an important part of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Research Strategy. Hear Claire talk about her research:

Matters of memory

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

There were some interesting discussions about how the build-up of the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid, could damage communication points between nerve cells, known as synapses.

When synapses are damaged, memories are lost as nerve cells cannot pass information to their neighbours. Research suggests that amyloid may cause synapse damage in many different ways. One group of scientists suggested that the immune system may play a role, and another team has suggested that amyloid changes the way cells are anchored in place. Researchers are working hard to investigate how all this links together to develop innovative ways to slow the distressing symptom of memory loss.

Treatments – new approaches to old problems

One of the repeating themes of this conference is that developing drugs against some biological molecules is incredibly difficult. Yesterday, we heard about a clever way of preventing the build-up of tau. Instead of using a drug to stop the formation of tau tangles, a molecule can be injected into the spinal cord that travels to the brain and reduces the production of tau in the first place. This research is still in the initial stages and we do not know if this type of treatment will improve memory and thinking skills. However, researchers showed that it can prevent shrinkage of parts of the brain involved in memory formation, so it will be interesting to see whether this could be used as a treatment approach for dementia in future.

Making dementia a global research priority

Following the recent G7 legacy event in London in June, there was a lot of interest in a morning session featuring the World Dementia Envoy Dr Dennis Gillings. He was joined by health leaders from other G7 countries to focus on Global Action on Dementia – the international drive to improve dementia research and care.

Dr Gillings outlined his ambitions to make dementia a “special case” for research and proposed new approaches to regulation to help reignite pharmaceutical R&D in the area. He made an example of Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Defeat Dementia campaign – our five year fundraising and research campaign to accelerate progress towards better treatments, prevention and diagnosis, and made the point that charities can take a real lead in the new age of dementia research.

Elsewhere, health leaders from other G7 nations outlined plans for further summits later in 2014 and 2015, which will concentrate on improving care and prevention and encourage greater links between academia and industry – an area where we have a great deal to contribute. You can read our reaction to this session on our news pages.

Conferences are a great opportunity for forging collaboration – a key goal outlined at the G8 Dementia Summit. We caught up with Dr Abdul Hye at King’s College London who was involved in the Alzheimer’s blood test research that hit the headlines last week. He told us why meeting other researchers at conferences was so useful:

Head injury as a risk factor for dementia

Recently there have been quite a few headlines linking head injury to dementia risk, particularly in high-impact sports. It was good to see this research discussed in a session exploring the link between traumatic brain injury (TBI) and dementia.

This session included a talk by Dr Raquel Gardner and colleagues at San Francisco VA Medical Center, who examined the effect of mild, moderate or severe TBI on over 55s. Their findings suggested that moderate or severe TBI in over 55s increased the risk of developing dementia five to seven years after the injury. In the over 75s, experiencing mild TBI appeared to be enough to increase dementia risk. As TBI at this age can be the result of falls, these kinds of studies highlight the need to ensure older people are living in a safe environment to help reduce the risk of injury. This is an important area of research and it’s promising to see ongoing studies looking at this potential risk factor in more detail.

We also heard discussion on important debates in dementia research including ‘Should we screen the general population for dementia?’. You can read more about these discussions in on our blog.

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