Curbing brain inflammation may help people treat and prevent Alzheimer's disease, according to a landmark new study.
Researchers at the University of Southampton in England conducted a series of experiments showing a chemical that reduces neuroinflammation may have the potential to protect against the memory and behavioral changes associated with the disease that affects roughly 5.3 million Americans.
"We have shown a way into tackling the disease, and now it is time to progress this to the clinical setup as soon as possible," said Dr. Diego Gomez-Nicola, the lead author of the study that was published in the journal Brain on Friday.
An overactive immune system can result in chronic inflammation, which previous research has linked to Alzheimer's. These new findings makes it increasingly apparent that inflammation is not a result of Alzheimer's as much as a key driver of the disease.
“With an aging population and no new dementia drugs in over a decade, the need to find treatments that can slow or stop disease progression is greater than ever."”
In one experiment, the researchers looked at the tissue of both healthy brains and the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. The brains of people with Alzheimer's had higher levels of microglia, or immune cells, which suggested brain inflammation.
The molecules that regulate the number of microglia became more active as the severity of the Alzheimer's increased, resulting in even higher levels of inflammation.
In another experiment, researchers showed that the chemical known as GW2580 reduced memory loss and behavioral problems in mice with an Alzheimer's-like condition.
They gave these mice an inhibitor to keep microglia from multiplying, and found that the progression of the disease stalled once microglia numbers stabilized. People with Alzheimer's typically experience a break down in communication between nerve cells in the brain, which the inhibitor helped prevent.
The mice treated with a drug containing the GW2580 chemical showed fewer memory and behavioral problems than the untreated mice.
"These findings are as close to evidence as we can get to show that this particular pathway is active in the development of Alzheimer's disease," Gomez-Nicola said in a statement. "The next step is to work closely with our partners in industry to find a safe and suitable drug that can be tested to see if it works in humans."
The findings also suggest that a diet and lifestyle focused on fighting inflammation could be important in preventing Alzheimer's. The researchers noted, however, that it's too early to make recommendations.
Other members of the scientific community are buzzing about the research, calling it "an exciting discovery" and "encouraging."
"With an aging population and no new dementia drugs in over a decade, the need to find treatments that can slow or stop disease progression is greater than ever," Dr. Doug Brown, director of research at Alzheimer's Society, told BBC News.
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