A leading dementia expert will call for greater attention to be paid to vascular health to help protect the brain this week, when he presents his latest findings at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2015.
The conference, which takes place in London on 10 and 11 March is the biggest meeting of dementia research experts in the country.
Prof James Nicoll, Professor of Neuropathology at the University of Southampton, will pull together evidence linking vascular disease and dementia, outlining a number of common risk factors including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, inflammation and obesity. Research is also ongoing to better understand what happens to blood vessels as Alzheimer’s sets in.
By studying brain tissue from people who died with dementia, Prof Nicoll’s lab has shown that proteins known to build in the brain in Alzheimer’s, such as amyloid, also accumulate in blood vessel walls in the brain. His research has shown that when amyloid is deposited in the blood vessel walls this can damage smooth muscle cells, which are crucial for controlling blood flow distribution in the brain. The results suggest that in Alzheimer’s, this control of blood flow may be disrupted.
Prof Nicoll said:
“It’s been known for some time that the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are also risk factors for vascular disease, and to fully understand those links it’s important for research to focus on changes in the blood vessels in Alzheimer’s. Research now clearly shows that as we grow older, maintaining good vascular health is key for keeping our brains healthy and helping reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s. The number of people with dementia is set to rise as our population ages, but by taking action to improve our nation’s vascular health we could help stem this growing crisis.”
The team at Southampton have also had the opportunity to study donated brain tissue from people who took part in a trial for an Alzheimer’s vaccine over a decade ago, investigating the effects of the treatment on blood vessels in the brain. Although the vaccine did not improve people’s symptoms, by continuing to follow participants after the trial ended, the researchers have been learning important lessons that could inform research into the next generation of new treatments. Their results show that, as the vaccine cleared amyloid from nerve cells, the protein was deposited inside the blood vessels – potentially causing further damage.
Prof Nicoll added:
“Our results suggest that treatment with this vaccine may have resulted in blood vessel damage as an unintended side effect, and we hope these findings will guide future research to develop new treatments. It will be important for future treatments aimed at removing amyloid from the brain to take into account the potential impact on blood vessels in the brain, and this study demonstrates how lessons from earlier trials can be relevant for the development of new treatments.”
Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, said:
“There is mounting evidence to suggest that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and this research suggests that damage to blood vessels in the brain may play a key role in Alzheimer’s disease. A better understanding of the links between vascular health and Alzheimer’s could provide vital new clues for understanding how to prevent and treat the disease. In the meantime, there are measures people can take to improve their vascular health and reduce their risk of dementia. Evidence shows that we can lower our risk of the disease by eating a healthy, balanced diet, taking regular exercise, not smoking, and keeping blood pressure and weight in check.”