The Liraglutide Study into Alzheimer’s Disease
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When Paul Edison was first training to be a doctor, there was no treatment for Alzheimer’s disease – nor a reliable way to diagnose it. Now he’s a researcher, senior lecturer, visiting professor, and a hospital consultant – but the goal of finding a treatment for Alzheimer’s patients has yet to be achieved.
“I was attracted to dementia research by the lack of understanding about the disease. I have always been interested in finding novel methods of diagnosis and trying to understand what causes damage to the brain”, explained Paul. “A host of patients and researchers are working on this to try to find a treatment.”
Paul heads a team of ten researchers, who use brain-scanning techniques to explore the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease. His team was one of the first to use scans to detect amyloid in the brains of people with dementia. Amyloid has long been known to form abnormal deposits in Alzheimer’s disease.
The team thought that their approach might prove to be the definitive diagnostic test, “But we’ve since found it’s not specific for Alzheimer’s. Amyloid deposits are found in the brains of people with other types of dementia”, Paul reported.
The team has also made another important observation. About 25% of people around age 75 have high levels of amyloid in their brain, but don’t have any dementia symptoms. So the presence of amyloid doesn’t seem to be directly linked to loss of memory.
Paul thinks there are different ways to explain this, “Perhaps what we’re seeing are people at the early stages, and perhaps in 15-20 years’ time, they would have Alzheimer’s. But the other interesting possibility is that amyloid is not the only problem. Something else might be causing the nerve damage”.
There are a number of possible causes of nerve damage. Other research has shown that the brain mounts an immune response during the disease, leading to brain inflammation. There’s also another abnormal protein formed in Alzheimer’s, called tau.
Paul’s team are looking to see if there are any links between these processes, “We want to find out if all these processes are abnormal at the same time, or does one lead to another? Which comes first and how do they interact? And importantly how does this all relate to brain function and symptoms of dementia? Understanding this might lead to a clearer diagnosis and more options for treatment”.
“Drugs used to treat diabetes act by restoring insulin’s functions, which raises the exciting possibility that such drugs might also be useful for treating dementia.”
There is another strand to Paul’s work, which directly relates to finding a treatment, as he explained, “There’s a strong relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. People with Type 2 diabetes are more likely to develop dementia. It’s not just a result of damage to blood vessels in the brain. We think there could be a common mechanism – resistance to insulin”.
Insulin not only affects blood sugar levels, but also acts as a signalling molecule between nerve cells. In Alzheimer’s, the nerve cells appear to stop responding to insulin.
Drugs used to treat diabetes act by restoring insulin’s functions, which raises the exciting possibility that such drugs might also be useful for treating dementia.
Paul’s team is conducting a study to test one such diabetes drug, liraglutide. This drug has already been tested in the laboratory, and has shown very promising results. In animal models, it’s been shown to decrease amyloid formation and brain inflammation, improve nerve cell growth, and increase the number of connections between nerve cells.
The question is whether it can do the same thing in people. Paul’s study will involve carrying out brain scans on large number of people with Alzheimer’s who are taking liraglutide to see if it makes a difference to their brain structure, and prevents the loss of nerve cells. Importantly the researchers will also assess whether the drug prevents memory loss and improves the lives of patients.
Paul has great hopes for the study, “If it’s successful, if we see an improvement in memory, then we can take the drug to the clinic very quickly, because we already know it’s safe for patients, because it’s already used to treat people with diabetes. We just need to find out if it’s effective”.
For further information about these studies, contact Paul’s team by email – firstname.lastname@example.org – or telephone 0208 383 3704 / 0208 383 1969
You can also see if you are eligible for this study – and many others around the country – by signing up with Join dementia research today.