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A turning point in dementia research

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Hilary Evans

Alzheimers Research UK

It’s little over two years since the G8 Summit on Dementia in London and focus on dementia has been growing ever since. Global health leaders set an ambition to develop a treatment that could slow or stop dementia by 2025, along with welcome increases in research funding. 


Despite research funding still lagging far other major health conditions – dementia charities can invest around £17m a year compared to over £380m for cancer charities – there is a sense of optimism in the scientific community. Dementia is long overdue its place in the spotlight and we must capitalise on this opportunity.

The human brain is the most complex structure in the known universe and understanding how it goes wrong is one of our biggest scientific challenges. Although there are many things still to be uncovered about the workings of the brain and what happens in dementia, we know more than ever about the proteins, genes and molecules driving Alzheimer’s and other diseases that cause dementia. They are physical diseases, and with sustained investment and support, researchers can tackle them in the same way they’ve made such strides against heart disease and cancer.

The UK is home to some of the world’s greatest dementia scientists and they’re collaborating across the globe to make progress faster. Our scientists have discovered over 20 genes linked to an altered risk of Alzheimer’s, throwing open new avenues for treatment investigation. Researchers are working hard to understand and detect the earliest changes in the diseases that cause dementia, from innovative brain scanning to discovering blood signatures that could underpin new diagnostic techniques.

We’re reaching a turning point in research, where we must capitalise on these promising discoveries and ensure they’re translated quickly into new treatments, preventions and diagnostics. That urgent need drove us to launch the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Alliance – a network of Drug Discovery Institutes. Our Institutes will house dedicated drug discovery teams focused on designing and developing potential new drugs for dementia.

But it’s not only researchers that are making a difference in research. The public play a vital role too, not only in supporting research but also in taking part. Anyone with or without dementia interested in volunteering for research studies can visit www.joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk or call Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Dementia Research Infoline on 0300 111 5 111.


Find out more about research into dementia at www.alzheimersresearchuk.org

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What is deep brain stimulation?

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Dr Tom Foltynie

Consultant neurologist, National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London

Consultant neurologist, Dr Tom Foltynie, from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London, discusses deep brain stimulation (DBS).


What is DBS and what does it involve?

It’s a type of surgery used for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease (PD), essential tremor and dystonia (a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions). It involves placing electrodes in the brain and connecting them, through wires that run under the skin, to a battery-powered pacemaker implanted under the skin on the chest wall. The electrodes deliver mild electrical impulses that help control symptoms. Patients with PD respond well to drugs, but the effect lasts only a short time. DBS can mimic the benefits of drugs 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Who is DBS for and what benefits can they expect?

The procedure is for patients who respond well to drugs but have unpredictable fluctuations between good and poor symptom control. In PD it can help improve tremor, slow movement, rigidity and pain, for many years. However, it doesn’t slow down the disease progression.. So, over time, people can develop new symptoms that make it harder to provide good quality of life. This is not because the device stops working, but because the disease is progressing.

Are there risks associated with DBS treatment?

There are very small, but real, risks associated with having electrodes inserted into the brain. One of these is bleeding, which can cause a stroke. There are also small risks associated with the electrical stimulation, such as slurred speech. It is important to select patients very carefully, so that the benefits of the treatment justify the small risks, and that these risks are minimised.

What have been important advances in DBS treatment recently?

One of the most exciting recent advances is that we can now use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)- although only in highly controlled settings- as a research tool to see how different brain areas increase or reduce their activity during DBS.

This was unthinkable before, and opens up the possibility for applications beyond the field of movement disorders. 

In addition, patients with DBS developing other problems, for example a prolapse disc, can now potentially have an MRI scan, whereas previosuly having a DBS device would have been a reason not to do so. However, this can be done only under very strict conditions, following specific guidelines, by clinicians with the right level of expertise. Its not something patients can do without appropriate safety precautions.

If you would like to know more about this treatment, please consult your GP.

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