Understanding whether drugs for rheumatoid arthritis can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease

Research project: TNF inhibitors in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease

Lead Investigator: Dr Bernadette McGuinness
Institution: Queen's University Belfast
Grant type: Project
Duration: 36 months 
Amount:  £399,993

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'The great potential here lies in the possibility of existing drugs being used to halt the progress of Alzheimer's disease.'

'Important study in my view. It appears to be looking after the needs of the participants well by interviewing them in their home setting and has included the lived experience of a research volunteer to help develop the proposal.'

'This project appears to offer genuine opportunities to explore underlying factors that might influence the progress of Alzheimer's disease.'

What do we already know?

There is an increasing amount of evidence that the immune system plays a key role in the development or progression of Alzheimer's disease. Previous research has found that levels of a protein involved in the immune system - called TNFα - appears to be increased in people with Alzheimer's disease and is associated with problems in memory and thinking. 

Drugs that act to block the actions of TNFα, known as TNFα inhibitors, are already used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These drugs include etanercept, adalimumab and infliximab. Evidence from small studies and analysis of clinical data indicates that people with rheumatoid arthritis who are taking these drugs could be at a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. Studies into this are continuing, including a trial of etanercept that Alzheimer's Society is supporting.

What does this project involve?

The researchers will carry out a comprehensive study on the effect of TNFα inhibitors on memory and thinking abilities. They will particularly focus on people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that in some cases can lead to Alzheimer's disease.

Dr McGuinness and her team will recruit people with rheumatoid arthritis from rheumatology day centres in Belfast and Southampton. Those who are found to have MCI will be invited to take part in the study. The participants will then be visited by a specialist nurse who will test their memory and thinking abilities. The visits will take place every 6 months over an 18 month period.

The team will use their findings to compare the memory and thinking abilities of people taking TNFα inhibitors to those on other types of rheumatoid arthritis drugs. This will indicate whether the TNFα inhibitors have any effect on the risk of progression from MCI to Alzheimer's disease. 

How will this benefit people with dementia?

If this study finds that people taking TNFα inhibitors appear to be at a reduced risk of dementia, this should pave the way for a clinical trial to further test the effects of these drugs. 

Investigating drugs that are already licenced for other conditions is a key part of Alzheimer's Society's Drug Discovery programme. This innovative method means that if an existing drug is found to be effective for people with dementia, it could be brought to the people who need it in half the time it takes to develop a drug from scratch.