Alzheimer’s, FTD and Parkinson’s disease: Are they all connected?

February 2017: Alzheimer's Society funded fellow, Raffaele Ferrari, investigates the potential overlap between Alzheimer's disease, frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and Parkinson's disease.

Work by Alzheimer's Society funded fellow Raffaele Ferrari has uncovered information about the potential overlap between three seemingly different conditions: Alzheimer's diseasefrontotemporal dementia and Parkinson's disease.

Researcher Raffaele Ferrari

Whilst Alzheimer's disease is most commonly associated with changes to memory and thinking, frontotemporal dementia is more known for affecting a person's behaviour and language. Parkinson's disease is most famously associated with problems with movement, including shaking. However, some of the symptoms of these conditions can overlap.

Finding genetic clues 

By using large amounts of genetic data from people living with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or frontotemporal dementia, Dr Ferrari has found evidence that some regions of our DNA might commonly contribute to the development of these conditions. Some of these regions, known as 'genetic markers', are located in the area that includes the ApoE gene, which is known to increase risk of Alzheimer's disease. However, this work found that the ApoE region may also have a role in the risk of frontotemporal dementia. Other similar findings were made in two more genetic regions - that include the MAPT gene and the HLA genes - and were found to have roles in the development of both frontotemporal dementia and Parkinson's disease. 

This work represents the first large-scale genetic study of the three conditions. The results indicate that not only are some genetic factors shared between Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and frontotemporal dementia, but that  a specific combination of multiple genetic markers are likely to work together to influence a person's risk of developing a particular condition.

These results are an important step in understanding the underlying biological processes behind each of these conditions. The genetic markers uncovered in this study point to a number of specific processes in the body that could contribute towards disease development. One genetic region points towards how the body processes cholesterol (APOE region), one indicates problems with the cell 'skeleton' (MAPT region) and one implies a role for the immune response (HLA region). This indicates that it is these factors that contribute towards the development of various forms of neurodegenerative disorders and should be likely targets for the development of potential treatments for these conditions.

Bringing experts together 

Dr Ferrari leads the International FTD-Genomics consortium, a group of over 150 experts in the field of frontotemporal dementia from Europe, North America and Australia. The consortium is conducting the biggest study to date on the genetics of the 60-70% of frontotemporal dementia cases that don't have a known genetic link. Alzheimer's Society, by funding Dr Ferrari, is supporting the consortium to reach nearly 6000 samples from people affected by frontotemporal dementia to build a clearer picture of the genetic factors underlying the condition.

Figure from Research Fellow Raffaele Ferrari - genetic overlap

Picture: Raffaele Ferrari

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