10 things you need to know about what dementia research achieves

1. The discovery of rare genetic mutations that cause Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia have revolutionised our understanding of these diseases, identifying key molecular processes involved that are now targets for potential new treatments.(37,38) Families with these mutations are now involved in clinical studies across the world, allowing us to understand the very first changes in these diseases that can power progress for all affected.(39)

2. The identification of hallmark biological changes underpinning diseases like Alzheimer’s kick-started a drive to develop innovative detection techniques that could significantly improve the accuracy and timeliness of diagnosis. These include state-of-the-art brain scans that can distinguish different forms of dementia, as well as spinal fluid and blood tests that could help predict the course of these diseases and determine the effectiveness of new treatments.(40)

3. Donated post-mortem human brain tissue in the 1970s and 80s led researchers to discover the loss of a brain chemical called acetylcholine in people with Alzheimer’s. This finding, followed by many more years of laboratory research, led to the development and licensing of drugs called cholinesterase inhibitors for the treatment of Alzheimer’s – still the only main groups of drugs recommended specifically for people with the disease.(44)

4. Nobel-prize winning stem cell techniques have allowed dementia researchers to turn skin cells from people with dementia into working nerve cells in the laboratory, fast-tracking research into the molecular causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s and providing an innovative tool for drug screening.(45,46) This technology is being harnessed in the Alzheimer’s Research UK Stem Cell Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.

5. An explosion in genetic technologies over the past three decades has powered the discovery of over 20 risk genes linked to Alzheimer’s, opening up important new avenues of research.(47,48) In 2012, Alzheimer’s Research UK funding led to the discovery of the risk gene TREM2, triggering a new wave of research into the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s,(49) an area which scientists are now exploring further in clinical trials.

6. A clinical trial that highlighted the dangers of long-term use of antipsychotic drugs in people with dementia kick-started a national campaign to reduce their use.(50) The use of antipsychotics for people in the UK with dementia has now fallen by more than 52 per cent. Alzheimer’s Research UK has since launched a Global Clinical Trials Fund to support more vital clinical trials to improve lives.

7. Population studies following large groups of people, including the Aberdeen Birth Cohorts Studies and the Cognitive Function and Ageing Studies, are providing important clues to the risk factors for dementia, including high blood pressure, smoking, depression, low physical activity, hearing loss, and education, and their impact on dementia risk.(51,52,82) The findings from these important studies are already driving public messaging campaigns around healthy brain ageing and informing clinical trials of preventative interventions.

If by 2020 we have developed a treatment that could delay the onset of dementia in people by 5 years:

8. By 2030 there would be 469,000 (36 per cent) fewer people with dementia

9. By 2030 there would be 399,000 (36 per cent) fewer informal carers.

10. By 2030 dementia would cost the UK economy £14.1 billion less (£24 billion compared to £38.1 billion).(53)

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