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Headlines Published on 08 October 2004

Title European study raises hope of Alzheimer’s therapy

German scientists think treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS) may show the way for treating Alzheimer’s, the debilitating disease marked by forgetfulness and the onset of dementia, which affects millions of people worldwide.

Antibodies already exist in the blood against nervous diseases like MS and Alzheimer’s © Image: PhotoDisc
Antibodies already exist in the blood against nervous diseases like MS and Alzheimer’s
© Image: PhotoDisc
Results from a pilot study suggest that immunoglobulins, or antibody therapy, already being used to treat MS patients, may improve the thinking ability of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, European scientists have reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.  Dr Richard C Dodel of Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn (DE) and colleagues note that, in animal studies, various immune therapies have been shown to cut back the build-up in the brain of a toxic protein, beta-amyloid, linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The disease first described by Alois Alzheimer in 1906 is the most common cause of dementia and accounts for 50-60% of all cases. It destroys brain cells and nerves, disrupting the transmitters which carry messages in the brain, especially those responsible for storing memories – accounting for the trademark forgetfulness associated with the disease.

Currently an estimated 18 million people worldwide suffer from dementia. Two thirds of these live in developing countries and, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, this figure could nearly double to 34 million people by 2025. Much of this increase will be in rapidly developing and heavily populated regions, such as China, India and Latin America. Dementia primarily affects older people, developing rarely in people under 65 years of age. This rises sharply with age to 1 person in 20 over the age of 65, and 1 in 5 for the over 80s.

No cure… yet
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s – or for most other causes of dementia. Until recently, scientists did not know how to prevent the disease from occurring, how to stop its progression, or how to reverse its effects. But these grim prospects may look a little rosier thanks to Dr Dodel’s tentative findings.

The team from Bonn University’s Neurological Clinic found that everybody’s blood contains antibodies against beta-amyloid peptide, the protein thought to be the main culprit in triggering Alzheimer’s by destroying sensitive nerve cells in the brain. They investigated what happened when five patients with the disease were treated with immunoglobulin over a six-month period.

“There are already antibody blood preparations which are used for particular diseases of the nervous system, such as multiple sclerosis,” Dr Dodel explains. “We have now investigated whether these preparations contain antibodies against beta-amyloid and if these can be used to fight Alzheimer’s.” Levels of beta-amyloid in brain fluid fell by 30% with antibody therapy, while its concentration in the blood rose by 2.3 times, the study shows.

This is consistent with the idea that such antibodies work by removing beta-amyloid from the brain and releasing it into the blood. These chemical changes were associated with improved cognitive ability, but scientists are careful not to jump to conclusions until a more in-depth study can be carried out on the benefits of immunoglobulins. “In order to confirm our findings, we definitely need to carry out a double-blind trial with larger patient numbers,” he says.

Source:  University of Bonn

Research Contacts page

More information:

  • Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry (Vol. 75, pp 1472-74, subscription)
  • The Alzheimer’s Association
  • Body can heal dementia itself (BBC News, 16 September 2004)

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