Scientists’ hopes for drugs to stop dementia

A growing problem: Projection of the number of sufferers between 2017 and 2050.

After the breakthrough in 2013 and further studies on mice, experts now hope that drugs already safely used on humans will stop the onset of terrifying degenerative brain diseases.

Experimenting on mice in 2013, a UK medical research team stopped brain cells dying in animals for the first time. But the compound used would cause damage to human organs. They have now found drugs known to be safe for use by people which offer the same protection to human brains.

The leader of the team says she wants to start clinical trials soon on people suffering with dementia. She expects results to determine whether the drugs work in two to three years.

The research discovered a way to 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 despite suffering 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 neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. The development has been hailed as a source of hope for millions of elderly people suffering 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 stood at over 46m in 2015, is set to double every 20 years.

This particular ‘cure’ succeeds while others have failed because the scientists tackled 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 research has identified a new technique that prevents the die-off reaction.

Head and heart

The research work is most welcome due to the threat posed to an ageing society in which many can expect to develop one of the degenerative brain diseases. The Alzheimer’s Society puts the annual UK cost of dementia at £26 billion, and each new case has knock-on effects on friends and family.

But dementia is terrifying because of its nature: 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. Are neurodegenerative diseases or 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 one 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

What do we know?
The Medical Research Council Team has been continuing its research since its breakthrough in 2013. It has been able to halt a range of neurodegenerative diseases in mice using drugs which have been used safely on people in other medical areas. The professor leading the team says she is excited at the prospect of clinically testing the drugs on people with dementia, and hopes for results within three years.
What do we not know?
Whether the drugs will have the same protective effects on the human brain as on mice; and provide an effective cure for dementia and related brain diseases in people.
What do people believe?
If the scientists can perfect the “wonder drug” cure for these terrifying diseases it will be a wonderful boon to sufferers, their relatives and carers.

Word Watch

UK medical research team
The MRC (Medical Research Council) Toxicology Unit at Leicester University led by Professor Giovanna Mallucci.
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. The prefix neuro- means relating to the nervous system or brain. There is a good summary on brainfacts.org.
Alzheimer’s
The most common cause of dementia; a physical brain disease leading eventually to the death of nerve cells and loss of brain tissue.
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 mostly inherited disease which causes brain cells to die, leaving the sufferer displaying difficult-to-diagnose symptoms such as changes in mood and behaviour, progressing to much worse loss of movement control and loss of cognition (perception, awareness, thinking, judgement).

Subjects

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