3 hot topics in dementia research right now

Today there are more dedicated dementia researchers working to understand the condition and develop new treatments than ever before. Our research team went to the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Los Angeles to get all the latest news.

6,000 global experts in dementia, medicine and care attended the AAIC conference to share their research, debate the latest theories and build new collaborations.

The conference was a busy and inspiring five days that has shown the passion and dedication of dementia researchers across the globe to help everyone affected by dementia.

'So many of us here have been personally touched by dementia and it’s this experience that drives us to do what we do. Dementia is relentless, but so are we.' - Dr Maria Carillo from Alzheimer’s Association.

James and Clare

Dr James Pickett, Head of Research and Dr Clare Walton, Research Communications Manager at Alzheimer's Society at the AAIC conference.

3 important areas of research to highlight

1. Steps forward in spotting the early signs

It is often said that once you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia, because the condition can affect each person differently.

Researchers think this might be why we’ve seen many unsuccessful trials in recent years. Many drugs that aim to slow down or stop dementia have tried to remove the build up of a toxic form of the amyloid protein from the brain. We now have clever ways of seeing whether someone has amyloid clumps in their brain. When researchers looked at those who took part in failed anti-amyloid drug trials, as many as 1 in 5 didn’t have amyloid clumps in their brains to start with! No wonder the drugs don’t work.

More than ever before the hunt is on to find the early signs of changes in the brain that are causing dementia. 

What's the latest?

  • Researchers have shown a protein called neurofilament in spinal fluid can tell us that brains cells are dying, making it a strong contender to tell us when dementia symptoms may begin.
  • Alzheimer’s Society Fellow Dr Ashwin Venkataraman has been testing new dyes that work with brain scans. This dye has allowed him to gather information about the connections between brain cells that we believe are damaged in dementia before brain cells start to die.

2. What affects our chances of getting dementia?

We know that both the genes we inherit and the lifestyle choices we make can affect our likelihood of developing dementia.

What’s the latest?

  • Research presented at the conference expanded the potential links between specific particle found in air pollution and dementia. This connection was only shown in a small group of women but it’s important we see more research to understand this connection.

  • Promising research from Exeter Medical School made the news headlines as it found that people with the highest genetic risk could reduce their likelihood of developing dementia by about a third.

3. Advances in technology

The conference isn’t all proteins and cells, researchers also shared the latest advances in technologies to improve dementia research and to improve the lives of people with dementia.

What’s the latest?

  • Katrina Moore, an Alzheimer’s Society PhD student has developed a smartphone app to spot the very early signs of Frontotemporal dementia that she is now testing.
  • Riona McArdle, also an Alzheimer’s Society researcher shared the latest in her work to use the way we walk to distinguish between those with Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia. She used a high tech mat to monitor how people walk and is exploring how we can use small, wearble devices to do the same in the home.
  • Claire Lancaster from the University of Oxford presented the latest from the GameChanger study supported by Alzheimer’s Society which has now recruited 16,000 participants.

Tackling the challenge

Sadly in recent years a number of promising drugs have failed when they reach the final stages of testing. This means that it’s more critical than ever before to drive forward progress in new areas of research.

Previously researchers have focused on tackling toxic proteins that build up in the brain of people with dementia, but the community is rapidly branching out. Now there is a lot of attention on understanding the role of the connections between brain cells, blood vessels, the immune system, microbes and more. Researchers across the globe hope this will increase our chance of finding a cure.

Research will beat dementia and Alzheimer’s Society is supporting work through initiatives like the UK Dementia Research Institute that will make a positive impact for everyone affected by dementia. It brings together over 700 world leading researchers who together are untangling the complexity of the brain to understand what causes dementia and turn this into effective treatments. 

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