Dementia: Alzheimer’s attacks language centre of the brain

Saturday Kitchen Live: Ed Balls discusses his mother's dementia

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Although first discovered in 1906, over 100 years ago, it hasn’t been until recent decades that scientists have been able to make real progress in understanding Alzheimer’s and in beginning to develop ways to combat it.

The reason for this has been a lack of technological tools necessary for the disease to be properly assessed as well as stigma around the condition.

Originally seen as a natural part of ageing, dementia and Alzheimer’s used to be seen as inevitabilities of life rather than conditions which could be treated in their own right.

However, that has changed, and studies such as that published by Northwestern University have shone new light on a condition that plagues and lives of millions around the world.

The study aimed to understand how Alzheimer’s affects the language centres of the brain. The scientists found that Alzheimer’s affects the language centres of the brain which are sited on the left-hand side of the organ.

They were able to observe this using a special imaging technique on living patients with the condition; previously they had only been able to observe this phenomenon after a patient had died from Alzheimer’s.

Known as Amyloid PET Imaging, the new technology allowed the process to be viewed in real time by the team and helped them understand what was happening to the human mind.

Lead study author Dr Emily Rogalski said: “By understanding where these proteins accumulate first and over time, we can better understand the course of the disease and where to target treatment.”

The type of dementia the team were studying was a rare type of language dementia known as primary progressive aphasia (PPA). Dr Rogalski said: “It is important to determine what Alzheimer’s looks like in PPA, because if it’s caused by something else, there is no sense in giving a patient an Alzheimer’s related drug, because it would be ineffective.”

Furthermore, first author of the paper Dr Adam Martersteck added: “This new technology is very exciting for Alzheimer’s research.

“Not only can we tell if a person is likely or unlikely to have Alzheimer’s disease causing their PPA, but we can see where it is in the brain. By understanding what the brain looks like in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s, we hope to be able to diagnose people earlier and with better accuracy.”

When the research was published n 2016, it was considered to be the first study examine compare beta-amyloid build-up in the brain using the then new imaging technology which allowed them to show how beta-amyloid builds up differently compared to other forms of dementia.

As well as trying to understand the problem that Alzheimer’s poses, there is also a campaign to change public perceptions of the disease in order to increase a sense of urgency.

The campaign, launched earlier this year by Alzheimer’s Society, ran with the tagline “Asking the same question over and over again. It’s not called getting old, it’s called getting ill” highlighting that Alzheimer’s is not an inevitable part of ageing.

In a statement about the programme they said: “Getting a diagnosis can be daunting, but we believe it’s better to know. And so do 91% of people affected by dementia. Over 9 in10 people affected by dementia say getting a diagnosis has benefitted them.

“It allows them to receive practical advice and support, to plan for the future, and can even offer a sense of relief in knowing what’s going on.”

This push to change how Alzheimer’s is viewed has come with a government commitment to double dementia research funding to £160 million by the year 2024.

In one of his last acts in office, a new initiative launched by the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to form part of the new push by the United Kingdom to make in roads before dementia can make gains.

At the time of the announcement last month, the new mission, known as Babs Army, the government said would be “driven by a new taskforce, bringing together industry, the NHS, academia and families living with dementia”.

Volunteers can register their interest through the Join Dementia Research website which aims to reduce the cost of trials and speed up the rate at which new treatments make their way through to patients who need them the most.

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