Dementia is a growing problem for healthcare providers, patients, and families. It’s estimated that 47 million people are living with dementia worldwide. The numbers are going nowhere but up and with an expected doubling every year, there could be more than 115 million people with some form of dementia by the year 2050.
Not all dementia is the same, however. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s caused by tangles of tau proteins that interfere with cognition. Another common form of dementia is called cerebral small vessel disease or SVD, which is caused when something prevents blood flow to a part of the brain. It can be a clot or a stroke or damaged blood vessels, but this form of dementia often called “vascular dementia” is also difficult to assess and treat.
Researchers at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine in the UK think they may have found a treatment for SVD which can reverse the changes in blood vessels in the brain and hopefully be used therapeutically for patients with dementia. The study used lab rats, however, the results are promising. Patients are diagnosed with SVD when a brain scan shows damage to white matter as a result of a loss of blood flow to parts of the brain. Understanding how this occurs, at the cellular level, is what makes the new study so significant.
The team, led by Professor Anna Williams, found that cells that line blood vessels become dysfunctional, sometimes due to injury or disease, and when these cells do not work properly, a molecule is secreted into the brain. This molecule damages the protective covering that surrounds brain cells. This covering, called myelin, has one job: to protect brain cells. When it deteriorates, the brain cells it’s meant to shield can be damaged and can die. The scientists at the CRM developed a drug that kept the cells lining the blood vessels from malfunctioning. It worked well and was able to reverse some of the symptoms of SVD, but it still needs to be tested to see if it will work in later stages of the disease and if the effect will translate in human trials.
Professor Williams stated, “This important research helps us understand why small vessel disease happens, providing a direct link between small blood vessels and changes in the brain that are linked to dementia. It also shows that these changes may be reversible, which paves the way for potential treatments.” The research is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine and was funded by the UK’s Medical Research Council, Alzheimer’s Research UK, and Fondation Leducq. With no viable treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and some pharmaceutical companies shutting down research into the disease, it’s even more important for clinical research to continue to try and find a way to beat this devastating disease. Check out the video to hear from Professor Williams about the work.