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Major breakthrough in dementia research

Tagged In:  Allied Health

Cambridge University scientists have found that two existing drugs could be repurposed to slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Sometimes the solution to a problem is all about lateral thinking. That's certainly the case with the latest step forward in dementia research. An antidepressant and a drug currently being trialled for cancer have been identified as potential weapons in the fight against neurodegenerative brain diseases.

Funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Alzheimer's Society and the Alzheimer Drug Discovery Foundation, the study found that a licensed antidepressant called trazodone and a compound in liquorice called dibenzoylmethane (DBM) are able to reduce brain cell death in mice with prion disease and frontotemporal dementia.

"We're excited by the potential of these findings," said Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at the Alzheimer's Society. "The research is at a very early stage and has not yet been tested in people - but as one of the drugs is already available as a treatment for depression, the time taken to get from the lab to the pharmacy could be dramatically reduced."

This is not the first time that researchers have explored the use of existing medicines to find an effective treatment for dementia. An ongoing three-year trial at Imperial College London is evaluating the effects of the diabetes drug liraglutide in patients with Alzheimer's disease. If the trial is successful, the drug could become a new treatment for Alzheimer's within the next 5-10 years, benefitting many of the estimated 500,000 people living with the disease in the UK.

In 2015, preliminary trials showed that gene therapy can regenerate dying cells in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. Meanwhile, other research has focused on prevention, and particularly the strategy of keeping the brain active to reduce the risk of dementia. In 2016, a study by scientists in Wisconsin, USA found that people with complicated or mentally challenging jobs are better able to withstand damage to the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. 

Dementia is one of the major healthcare challenges for nurses, doctors, and biomedical scientists. One in three over-65s are likely to die with some form of dementia and the current cost to the UK economy is estimated at a staggering £23 billion per year. 

"The number of dementia researchers has almost doubled in six years, " wrote Alzheimer's Research UK Chief Executive Hilary Evans in a recent blog post. "Over the same period, we’ve seen research productivity soar too: the number of scientific papers published revealing new discoveries each year has also nearly doubled. The figures are proof that we’re gaining ground in the search for new treatments and preventions for this devastating condition."

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