June 2017 is Alzheimer’s and Brain and Awareness Month, which aims to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other types of dementia1. I have a personal interest in this topic because when I was a child, my great-grandma was diagnosed with AD and I witnessed her health deteriorate day after day.

AD is the most common cause of dementia, affecting as many as 50 million people worldwide and around 520,000 in the UK. Its symptoms include memory loss and difficulty with thinking, problem solving and language2,3. It is still not clear what causes AD, but age, genetics and lifestyle are amongst the factors for increased risk. AD is a neurodegenerative disease, meaning that its symptoms are generally mild at the start, but become progressively worse over time, eventually interfering with the everyday life of those affected. Simple tasks such as going to the shop become impossible for individuals with AD, as they struggle with orientation and forget where they are3. I remember my great-grandma was unable to recognize anyone or speak properly in the later stages of the disease, and she was also unable to feed herself, making it impossible for her to live without day-to-day support.

The symptoms of AD are believed to be caused by an atypical build-up of proteins within the brain in the forms of ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’, which impairs connections between neurons and eventually leads to loss of brain tissue. It is known that low levels of the chemical transmitter acetylcholine are expressed in the brain of subjects with AD, and the lower these levels are, the worse the symptoms will be. Currently, there is no cure available for AD, even though some drugs can slow down the symptoms progression. Amongst these are cholinesterase inhibitors, which increase acetylcholine levels that help ease and stabilize the symptoms of AD. One alternative treatment reduces the levels of glutamate, another chemical transmitter in the brain, which is released excessively in subjects with AD and is believed to cause further brain damage3.

It is particularly challenging to tackle AD, as is it still unclear whether the aggregated proteins, ‘plaques’ and ‘tangles’, actually cause the symptoms of AD4. Recently, great expectations were put on one phase III trial that aimed to show an improvement in cognitive decline in patients with mild AD. However, these expectations were completely missed as the drug failed to show significant results. The hope for future research and trials lies in molecules that might target AD at even earlier stages5.

There are several ways to support the Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month. You can ‘go purple’ by changing your Facebook colour or wearing a purple t-shirt, or you can share your personal experiences with AD by using the hashtag #MyAlzStory and #ENDALZ on social media1.

References:

1. Alzheimer’s Association website. Available at http://alz.org/abam/ Last accessed June 2017
2. Alzheimer’s Disease International website. Available at https://www.alz.co.uk/research/statistics Last accessed June 2017
3. Alzheimer’s Society website. Available at https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/info/20007/types_of_dementia/2/alzheimers_disease Last accessed June 2017
4. Alzheimer Basics: Plaques and Tangles. Available at http://www.alz.org/norcal/in_my_community_20545.asp Last accessed June 2017
5. Alzheimer's hopes dashed as Lilly gives up on amyloid drug solanezumab. Available at http://www.fiercebiotech.com/biotech/alzheimer-s-hopes-dashed-as-lilly-gives-up-amyloid-drug-solanezumab Last accessed June 2017