Breakthrough for research into Alzheimer’s cure

Signs of a possible cure for dementia have been warmly welcomed, even though the treatment is unlikely to emerge for decades. Why do degenerative brain diseases frighten us so much?

This week saw one of the most dramatic potential breakthroughs in modern medicine – despite the fact that the treatment has not yet been trialled on humans.

A team of British scientists has discovered a way to completely halt the death of neurons in the brains of mice with degenerative diseases. The mice in the study stopped experiencing the symptoms of memory loss, regained normal reflexes and no longer dragged their limbs. And although they suffered unpleasant side effects, like extreme weight loss, the mice lived longer than their fellows with the same diseases.

Researchers say their discovery could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s, as well as other brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. The development has been hailed as a source of hope for millions of elderly people who suffer from these conditions, and for those who care for them.

The scale of the problem is immense and growing. One in three British people over the age of 65 are predicted to develop dementia by the time they die, while eight out of ten people in care homes are already suffering severe memory loss due to conditions such as Alzheimer’s. The number of people affected globally, which currently stands at over 35 million, is set to double every 20 years.

And why did this particular ‘cure’ succeed while others have failed? Because the scientists decided to tackle brain cell death rather than the reasons why the brain stops regenerating itself.

In patients with this group of diseases, the brain becomes clogged with misshapen proteins that fold over and stick together in clumps. As the clumps accumulate, the brain reacts by stopping production of its own essential proteins, which leads to the gradual death of neurons.  Previous studies focused on stopping the faulty protein build-up, but this week’s research report explains a new technique that prevents the die-off reaction.

‘We were extremely excited when we saw the treatment stop the disease in its tracks,’ said Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who led the project.

Head and heart

The warm welcome for Professor Mallucci’s work is partly down to the size of the threat Alzheimer’s poses to an ageing society in which more and more of us can expect to develop one of the degenerative brain diseases. By 2018, the UK alone will face dementia costs of £27 billion every year, and each new case has knock-on effects on friends and family.

But dementia seems even more of a threat because of how we feel about it: a disease which strikes at someone’s memories seems to attack the sufferer’s very identity. Without a cure, will this disease gradually make a significant proportion of us less than ourselves – less than human?

You Decide

  1. Is dementia more frightening than physical degeneration?
  2. ‘Medical science is mankind’s most worthwhile and impressive achievement.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. Produce a poster promoting awareness of dementia and advertising the sources of support available.
  2. Research another example of a degenerative disease that may be helped by this breakthrough.

Some People Say...

“Science can be trusted to solve all our problems.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Hope I die before I get old.
How old is old? Even now, there are more than 17,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK. And as the population as a whole lives longer, our definitions of youth, middle age and old age change accordingly. You might still feel youthful in body and mind when you are 100, if you’re lucky.
Don’t be daft.
I’m not! In the UK, babies born now can expect to live much longer: and it makes the challenges for science and for the National Health Service different from those of previous eras. Breakthroughs like this one are important because they tackle quality of life for the elderly. Modern medicine, along with diet and other lifestyle changes, already ensures that far more of us will live to a ripe old age. Now we have to make sure those last decades can be lived to the full.

Word Watch

Neurons
A special name for the cells in the brain and central nervous system. They can communicate via electrical and chemical messages called synapses.
Degenerative diseases
Conditions which get progressively worse over time. There is a good summary on brainfacts.org.
Parkinson’s
Another disease caused by the death of nerve cells in the brain, and with no cure. It is not fatal, but the symptoms get worse over time.
Huntington’s
Huntington’s Chorea (Greek for dance) is a disease which causes some brain cells to die, leaving the sufferer displaying difficult-to-diagnose symptoms such as changes in mood and behaviour, which progress to much worse loss of movement control and loss of cognition (perception, awareness, thinking, judgement). Huntington’s is mostly an inherited condition.

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