Link between dementia and inflammation of the brain

Scientists from the University of Cambridge have been studying the link between inflammation of the brain and dementia. The study was published in the journal Brain, as an open access article. The scientists hope that their findings could lead to new dementia treatment.

The body uses inflammation to respond to stress and injury. This can be seen clearly when a cut on the knee turns red and swollen around the injured area. This indicates infection and should be dealt with swiftly. Previous studies have linked inflammation of brain cells to disorders such as multiple sclerosis, depression and psychosis. A recent study also linked it to Alzheimer’s disease.

The small study recruited around 30 patients who had been diagnosed with different types of fronto-temporal dementia. This type of dementia is a group of conditions which are caused by the build-up of severe abnormal proteins. The patients were asked to undergo two types of brain scans, using Two Positron Emission Tomography or PET scans. The first scan examined the patient for cells that cause inflammation in the brain. These cells indicated damage to the brain cells and connections. For the second scan, the scientists looked for evidence of the abnormal proteins. The scientists found that the more inflammation that they found in patient’s brain cells, the more likely they were to find abnormal proteins which indicated dementia. Twelve of the patients’ brains were donated to the Cambridge Brain bank after death, and they were able to analyse under the microscope, the findings from the PET scans and the actual state of the cells.

The scientists were surprised how closely the two different scans matched up. There needs to be more research into how abnormal proteins and inflammation of brain cells work together. The scientists hypothesised that there might be a circle of events where the damaged cells cause the inflammation, which could also cause more cell damage. The dementia conditions examined in the study all create different symptoms in patients, but it is also known that inflammation has a role to play in Alzheimer’s disease, linking them all together. The scientists surmised that perhaps inflammation might also have a role to play in other neurodegenerative diseases. These include Huntingdon’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Treatments that are known to be effective against inflammation could be investigated to see if they could help these diseases too.

Dementia is a broad term for a group of symptoms, which include problems with language, thinking skills, memory, problem-solving and taking part in every day activities. Alzheimer’s disease is one form of dementia. Risk factors for dementia include old age and the risk of developing the disease may double every five years from the age of 65. It is possible, however for people to develop early onset dementia. Early symptoms can include memory loss, behaviour changes, difficulties communicating, sight and hearing loss, aggression or personality change, hallucinations and sleep disturbance. There is currently no known cure for the condition, although help can be given to help manage the symptoms. Scientists believe that it is also possible to delay the onset of dementia by exercising regularly, eating healthily including five fruit/vegetables a day in the diet and ensuring that hearing loss is tested and mitigated by hearing aids.

Cope, T.E., Bevan-Jones, W.R., et al Neuroinflammation and protein aggregation co-localize across the frontotemporal dementia spectrum. Brain, 2020;

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