While coronavirus may be the talk of the town at the moment, dementia remains a pressing concern globally, with no new approved drugs surfacing for more than 15 years. That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom, in fact, over the past year, there have been a number of significant strides forward.
From jelly sweets to newly identified conditions, journalist Patrick Bawn details some of the key developments during the past year, before taking a look at how dementia research is set to take shape in 2020.
2019: What We Learnt
Dementia-focused research progressed significantly across a wide range of conditions during 2019. Listed below are just a few of the key research developments published throughout the year:
1. Jelly Drops
Dehydration may be a common challenge for all older people, but it is a notable problem within dementia. This is because dementia, as a condition, significantly affects the brain and memory function of individuals. As a result, patients often have difficulties recognising their need for water in the first place, as well as expressing that level of thirst to other people.
Fortunately, an exciting new invention looks set to combat this, reducing dehydration levels in dementia patients. Known as Jelly Drops, these bite-sized sweets were invented by Lewis Hornby on behalf of his grandmother. Made up of 90% water and other electrolytes, the innovative raindrop-shaped sweets are designed to be as hydrating as possible while, of course, tasting nice as well.
Now backed by £100,000 funding from the Alzheimer’s Society, Lewis and his team hope to bring the sweets to market as soon as possible, in order to reduce dehydration in dementia.
2. Eyes open
A study released in September last year suggested that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease could be determined simply by looking at a patient’s eyes. During the study, a team of scientists at the University of California said that, by monitoring how quickly a person's pupil dilates, this could provide a low-cost, low-invasive method of identifying Alzheimer’s.
The group’s finding was seen to be especially important for individuals with an increased genetic risk of developing Alzheimer’s. By being able to identify the risk of onset sooner, the disease’s progression can – in turn – be targeted earlier on.
3. Fresh blood
While on the topic of diagnosing Alzheimer’s, in one of the most exciting developments of last year, a team of researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine established a new, highly effective way of detecting the condition.
After taking the blood of 158 people, the researchers examined each sample to measure for levels of amyloid beta protein – a key protein responsible for Alzheimer’s onset. They also screened each participant for genetics and gave each patient a brain scan, in order to compare the results of the blood sample analysis against.
The results of the work found that the newly developed blood test was the most successful method of detecting Alzheimer’s disease, with a 94% success rate. This finding, in turn, should now make it easier to identify suitable patients for any upcoming dementia-focused clinical trials.
4. Better LATE than never
Back in May 2019, an international team of researchers identified a new type of brain disorder. Known as Limbic-predominant age-associated TDP-43 encephalopathy – or LATE for short – this disorder was seen to mimic the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, causing memory problems as a result of damage to the hippocampus, a major region of the brain.
In Alzheimer’s disease, damage to this region is typically caused by a build-up of toxic sticky proteins called tau and amyloid. However, in LATE, hippocampus damage was found to be caused by another type of toxic protein, known as TDP-43.
Identifying this protein and brain disorder has now opened up many avenues for future research, including the impact brain injuries can have on LATE onset. It has also provided a potential reason as to why certain clinical trials have failed in the past, since the participants involved could have suffered from different brain diseases.
2020: Areas of Excitement
Moving into 2020, dementia-focused research is showing no signs of slowing down. Here are some of the key research projects and potential developments to look forward to over the coming year:
1. Prime Minister’s update
Back in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron released a document outlining the UK government’s plans to improve the perception of dementia. Titled the ‘Prime Minister’s Challenge On Dementia 2020’, this document stated that it not only wanted England to become the best country in the world for dementia care and support by 2020, it also wanted the country to be the best place in the world for dementia-focused research.
Now that we are in 2020, there is due to be a review at the end of the year detailing how successful the Prime Minister’s plans have been over the past five years. Watch this space.
2. Parkinson’s probiotic prevention
In an exciting recent finding, researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Dundee have identified a probiotic – or so-called good bacteria – which prevents the build-up of a protein linked with Parkinson’s disease.
Known as alpha-synuclein, when this protein builds up, it forms toxic clumps capable of killing dopamine-producing nerve cells. This, as a result, leads to the motor symptoms typically associated with Parkinson’s disease patients.
Now, however, research has shown that a probiotic called Bacillus subtilis can prevent the accumulation of this protein, and also clear some of the already-formed protein clumps. As a result, future research over the coming year is expected to look at gauging a better understanding of how probiotic supplements can guard against dementia.
3. Oligomer analysis
Scientists may already know Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a build-up of amyloid protein, but why exactly this accumulation is so toxic remains unclear. Recent clinical trials have failed to target amyloid plaques as hoped, meaning many researchers are now needing to delve in even deeper to improve their level of understanding.
With this in mind, a team of researchers from Imperial College London are looking into a much smaller collection of proteins, known as oligomers, to ascertain their role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Attempting to better understand the shape and structure of these proteins, the team hopes to fulfil two key objectives: first, to determine how these proteins cause nerve cell death. And second, to identify regions that can be targeted with suitable drugs. Again, watch this space.
Patrick Bawn MSc/MA is an NCTJ-accredited journalist and double Masters graduate from Brighton. Having written for numerous publications both online and in print, he specialises in a wide range of topics – from health and biology, to travel and technology. Away from writing, he enjoys football, tennis and walking his dog Daisy. He’s also a singer-songwriter in his spare time and is on a mission to visit every pub in Brighton at least once. He’s already completed Bristol.