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American scientists hope that in the future, patients at risk of getting Alzheimer's will be able to take a pill to reduce their risk of getting the condition, just as people with high cholesterol levels at risk of heart disease do.
While previous research into Alzheimer’s and dementia looks at the condition in later stages to determine its cause, a new US study investigated it in much earlier stages.
By using experimental animal models, scientists were able to prevent early events that occur in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s long before typical symptoms appear.
Dr Cristian Lasagna-Reeves, a co-author of the paper, said: “We tried to find clues about what is happening at the very early stages of the illness, before clinical irreversible symptoms appear, with the intention of preventing or reducing those early events that lead to devastating changes in the brain decades later.”
The research found a link between Alzheimer’s and a build-up in the brain of a plaque-like protein called tau, which increases with age. This protein can be reduced by inhibiting an enzyme known as Nuak1.
Scientists hope to develop a drug which will inhibit Nuak1 to reduce the levels of tau in the brain and prevent the onset of dementia.
‘Alzheimer’s can be compared to heart disease’
Dr Huda Zoghbi, senior author of the research paper, said: “When people started taking drugs that lower cholesterol, they lived longer and healthier lives rather than dying earlier of heart disease.
“Nobody has thought about Alzheimer’s disease in that light. Tau in Alzheimer’s can be compared to cholesterol in heart disease.”
Tests were carried out on cultured human cells and laboratory fruit flies before the scientists confirmed their findings by inhibiting Nuak1 in mice carrying a dementia-causing mutation.
Dr Zoghbi explained: “We hoped that the results would hold, and they did. Inhibiting Nuak1 improved the behaviour of the mice and prevented brain degeneration.”
She added: “This has convinced us that Nuak1 is a reliable potential target for drugs to prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Through this whole study, we came up with a ‘drugable’ target (Nuak1) that’s now poised to be used to develop a pharmaceutical.”
Large amounts of tau are commonly found in the brains of people who develop other degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, so this research could shed light on the cause and prevention of other, similar conditions.
The study was carried out by scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children’s Hospital and John Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The full research paper, entitled ‘Reduction of Nuak1 Decreases Tau and Reverses Phenotypes in a Tauopathy Mouse Model’, was published in the Neuron journal in October and can be read in full here: http://www.cell.com/cms/attachment/2066921160/2066870389/mmc3.pdf