The recent death of country music legend Glen Campbell after several years living with Alzheimer’s disease is a sharp reminder of its potency. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a progressive brain disease that causes brain cells to die. It affects multiple brain functions, notably memory, and many will die from its complications. And developments in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease fall far behind those in other chronic conditions. To date, there is no sure way to prevent or slow down the development of the disease, let alone a cure.
Research from UCL suggests that by 2040, over 1.2 million people will be living with dementia in the UK. Though new diagnoses of Alzheimer’s are decreasing, the overall prevalence is rising – fuelled in part by increasing life expectancy. Like many countries with an ageing population, dementia is set to be the biggest killer of the 21st century.
The increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s means the demand for care is also growing. There is a huge reliance on unpaid carers to physically and financially support people with Alzheimer’s. A recent survey of over 50,000 carers found that a fifth have provided free care for over 20 years. Those reporting the most serious financial difficulties were also socially isolated.
The high burden of Alzheimer’s disease has led to ever greater demand, and hope, for breakthroughs in prevention and treatment.
Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine are developing a test to detect blood-based amyloid; a protein that builds up in the brain before Alzheimer’s symptoms are seen. A simple blood test that detects amyloid could help to identify these people and help to improve Alzheimer’s outcomes.
Meanwhile, British scientists are developing miniature brains in the laboratory they hope will aid drug development, by genetically transforming human skin cells into neural cells which are then 3D-printed into the shape of a brain. These small structures could help scientists to understand how dementia develops. The work may eventually allow scientists to grow replacement parts for transplantation into the brains of people living with Alzheimer’s.
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