Medical science is offering new hope in the battle against dementia and other degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.
Dementia is a chronic or persistent breakdown of mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by symptoms including memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning. It is usually, though not always, linked with the ageing process.
For the loved ones of those suffering with dementia in its many forms, it is a devastating illness, gradually taking away the person they know and love, often to the point where the sufferer no longer recognises those closest to them.
While there is no cure for dementia, some treatments and therapies have been found to slow its effects in some patients. But now a team from the UK Medical Research Council hope they have found a drug-based treatment to stop all neurodegenerative brain diseases, including dementia.
In 2013 they found a compound which, when tested in animal trials, stopped brain cells dying for the first time. Unfortunately, the compound was unsuitable for humans as it also damaged the pancreas, but now the scientists have found two drugs which should together have the same positive effect on the brain and are already being safely used in human medicine.
Clinical trials on dementia patients could start soon, although it will be two to three years before researchers know if the drugs work, and how effective they are. In very simple terms, the drugs work by affecting how the brain’s natural defence mechanisms react.
When a virus hijacks a brain cell, the cell responds by shutting down production of the proteins it needs to survive. This is designed to stop the virus spreading, but in some cases the brain cells shut down protein production for so long that they starve themselves to death. It is hoped the drugs will stop this from happening – in other words, they could stop brain cells from dying.
Since its initial discovery in 2013, the Medical Research Council (MRC) team has tested more than 1,000 existing drug treatments in a bid to replicate the effect of the original compound, but without its toxic side effects for humans. Two drugs, one already used to treat depression and the other being tested in cancer patients, were found to prevent a form of dementia.
“It’s really exciting,” said Professor Giovanna Mallucci, of the MRC’s Toxicology Unit, in Leicester. “Both drugs were very highly protective and prevented memory deficits, paralysis and dysfunction of brain cells.”
So far the drugs have been tested on mice, worms and on human cells in a laboratory dish, with very encouraging results.
“It’s time for clinical trials to see if there are similar effects in people and to put our money where our mouth is,” said Prof. Mallucci.
But while she and her team hope the treatment will stop brain cells dying and halt degeneration, it is unlikely to regenerate brain cells. In other words, patients should stop getting worse, but they are unlikely to get better.
“We’re very unlikely to cure them completely,” said Prof. Mallucci, “but if you arrest the progression you change Alzheimer’s Disease into something completely different so it becomes liveable with.”
Dr Doug Brown, from the Alzheimer's Society, said: "We're excited by the potential of these findings, from this well conducted and robust study. As one of the drugs is already available as a treatment for depression, the time taken to get from the lab to the pharmacy could be dramatically reduced.”
If clinical trials of the new treatment in humans are sanctioned, it will be a matter of time to see how effective it can be in halting brain degeneration.
“As a professional, a doctor and a scientist, I must advise people to wait for the results," said Prof. Mallucci.
• For a wide range of help, advice and information on dealing with dementia, visit the website of Dementia UK by clicking here, or call its helpline on 0800 888 6678.