Dementia research has been hit hard by the pandemic. But at the Alzheimer’s Association International conference (AAIC), the biggest dementia research conference in the world, there was plenty to feel hopeful about.
Each summer the AAIC conference brings together thousands of dementia researchers to share their work, collaborate and get inspired. This year, although virtual, was no exception.
Our team tuned in and share their top 5, good-news takeaways from dementia research.
1) A step closer to a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease
Over the last couple of years you may have seen headlines about a new blood test for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have been making rapid progressing bringing this closer to reality.
What’s new this time?
Tau is a protein, that build up in an abnormal form as tangles in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at AAIC reported steps forward in a simple blood test that can identify a specific form of tau (p-tau217) that appears to be most specific to Alzheimer’s disease.
This test appears to be able to distinguish between people with markers of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain from those without with 89% accuracy and distinguish Alzheimer’s from other neurodegenerative conditions. This test is showing signs of being more accurate than others which test for abnormal forms of amyloid in the blood, another hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and may be as accurate as gold standard brain scans available at the moment.
Although these developments are exciting the next steps are vital. We need to see further research to verify the accuracy of this blood test in larger groups of people from the general population. This will tell us more about whether this test might be ready for the clinic and whether it can spot Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms occur.
Why is this important?
Fiona Carragher, our Director of Research and Influencing said:
“A cost effective, accurate and non-invasive diagnostic test is a vital step in developing new treatments for the 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today.”
Find out more in our ‘Spotting the early sign of dementia: what’s the point? blog.
2) 40% of cases of dementia may be preventable
In 2017, the Lancet Commission report on dementia prevention revealed that 9 modifiable risk factors may account for 35% of all dementia cases in the world.
In a follow up report shared at AAIC part-funded by Alzheimer’s Society, a further 3 modifiable risk factors have been identified – traumatic brain injury, excessive alcohol consumption and air pollution.
Taken together, these 12 risk factors may account for 40% of all dementia cases.
Why is this important?
Although there is no fail-safe way to prevent dementia as there are many different risk factors – some which we can control and others we cannot – this is good news as it presents even more potential for us to try and prevent dementia from developing in the first place.
Fiona Carragher, Direct of Research and Influencing said:
'While we don’t have all the answers yet, we can take action now to tackle the risk factors within our control, including excessive drinking, obesity and high blood pressure.
'Meanwhile, we need public health policies to address other factors, such as air pollution and inequalities in childhood education.'
We need to see much more research to understand how these risk factors interlink, how they affect different ethnic groups and how best can best be supported to make changes to address these risk factors throughout their lives.
Find out more about the Lancet Commision's new report.
3) Latest in treating agitation in dementia
Many people with dementia experience agitation, which can be distressing for the individual and for their loved ones. Non-drug approaches should be prioritised to manage behaviours like agitation as some drug treatments have been found to have serious side effects particularly when used in the long term.
However, researchers are still working to develop safe and effective drug treatments for agitation in Alzheimer’s disease. At AAIC, researchers presented early trial results for a drug called AXS-05 that showed a significant reduction in agitation over 5 weeks in people with Alzheimer’s disease compared to a group taking a dummy drug. Most importantly the drug appeared to be well tolerated by participants and did not have a sedative effect.
Although promising, this trial was small and over a short period of time. The next step will be to ensure the team see a similar effect over a longer period of time and that there continue to be no negative side effects.
4) Prioritising understanding dementia in diverse communities
AAIC 2020 marked a real step change in focus on the importance of understanding dementia across the many different ethnic groups.
Research has shown the likelihood of different ethnic groups developing dementia varies. For example, black people are more likely to develop dementia than white people.
A research team from America at AAIC, showed that although the rate at which their memory and thinking skills decline appears to be similar, black people have lower cognitive scores than white people at baseline. It’s vitally important we understand why this is the case.
We need further research to understand the role of factors that may cause this disparity such as education, literacy, our genes, BMI and discrimination, as well as many other possible environmental, social, cultural, biological and behavioural risk factors that may go on to influence risk of dementia in different populations.
This will be important in how we support people from different communities to reduce their risk of developing dementia and in developing new treatments.
5) A glimmer of hope from a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease
Gantenerumab is a potential Alzheimer’s disease drug, which targets the toxic amyloid protein plaques found in the brain. In recent years it has been tested in a Phase 2/3 clinical trial aimed at preventing dementia in a group of families affected by familial or inherited Alzheimer’s disease. Sadly, earlier this year results showed the drug had no impact on memory and thinking in people taking part in the trial.
However, results did show that when the team carried out brain scans and took samples of cerebrospinal fluid from participants, that gantenerumab had an impact on some markers of Alzheimer’s disease. Gantenerumab had reduced the amount of amyloid in the brain and reduced the amount of amyloid and tau, another toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease, in the cerebrospinal fluid.
In light of this, the researchers have begun a study with a high dose of gantenerumab for up to 3 years. This will allow the researcher to understand if Gantenerumab continues to lower the levels of these proteins and if it might have any effect on cognition.
It’s still incredibly early days and we don’t know yet whether the extension will be successful or not, but there is some hope in the fact that gantenerumab has not been entirely discounted as a potential drug for Alzheimer’s disease.
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