This year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC), which was held in London recently, concluded having run over the past week from 16 to 20 July. This annual international conference brought together the world’s brightest minds and leading researchers in the field—to talk about major research findings about the disease.

Here are five of the biggest research discoveries brought forth at the conference:

Slowing speech patterns, the first signs of Alzheimer’s

A team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has discovered that slowing speech pattern and language deficiencies are one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

While language deficiencies are a known sign of neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s, the study revealed that it may occur much earlier than expected. Slowing speech patterns such as pauses, using filler words and simpler vocabulary together with forgetting names and age is often dismissed as part of normal ageing.

This is true to an extent but, a more frequent and progressively worsening speech pattern is what distinguishes early Alzheimer’s from normal ageing. Unfortunately, these changes are subtle and progressive, which makes it difficult for both the individual and their family members to notice.

While the data is available, there is little that can be done immediately by clinicians to combat the issue as discussed during the conference. Nevertheless, data such as this brings to life the possibility of new clinical tests – as team of researchers are already developing new computer programs and applications to detect these early signs.

Three new risk genes discovered

A team of researchers at the University of Cardiff has discovered three new risk genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Two of the genes, PLCG2 and ABI3, were previously not associated with Alzheimer’s disease. However, the team was able to identify variants of the gene, which conferred an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

On top of that, the team also identified another known risk gene, TREM2, with a further increased risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease through a full genetic analysis of 85,133 research participants. This massive undertaking involved the team narrowing down more than 200,000 variants to 43 candidate variants and finally the three identifiable risk genes.

While a lot of hard work was required, it was not for naught as the scientific community now has a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease especially with regards to the microglia region of the brain where these genes are expressed.

Dozens of new potential Alzheimer’s treatment

One of the big announcements at the conference was the fact that in the next five years, there will be nearly three dozen new Alzheimer’s medications which will be introduced to the market. This figure includes 27 drugs currently in Phase 3 of clinical trials and another eight in Phase 2 of clinical trials.

There has not been a new Alzheimer’s medication in the market since 2002 in Europe and 2003 in the United States. This announcement comes at a time where rates of Alzheimer’s disease continue to grow at an exponential rate every year with new medication to treat the disease sorely needed.

Serving more than just a stop gap measure, these three dozen new drugs will serve the important task of keeping Alzheimer’s at bay while researchers do their best to inch towards a cure for the neurodegenerative disease.

Stress ages the brain

Highly stressful events such as divorce, death of a loved one, abuse and losing a job can lead to poorer cognitive function in later life. A team of researchers from the Wisconsin University’s School of Medicine and Public Health discovered that highly stressful life experiences can cause the brain to age by several years, with African Americans being particularly susceptible.

These findings have helped shed a light on the socioeconomic standpoint of stress leading to an increased risk of dementia in vulnerable populations with poorer social support.

Dr Doug Brown, the director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, remarked, “We know that prolonged stress can have an impact on our health, so it’s no surprise that this study indicates stressful life events may also affect our memory and thinking abilities later in life. However, it remains to be established whether these stressful life events can lead to an increased risk of dementia.”

Further adding, “However, the findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events. As we improve our understanding of risk factors for dementia, it is increasingly important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play.”

Good sleep helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease

Three studies carried out by researchers from the Wheaton College discovered a significant relationship between breathing disorders that interrupt sleep and the accumulation of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.

Common breathing disorders such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA), causes disrupted and poor sleeping cycles due to frequent awakenings. These then lead to an accumulation of beta-amyloid, a toxic biomarker commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Megan Hogan, one of the Wheaton researchers, “During sleep, when your brain has time to wash away all the toxins that have built up throughout the day, continually interrupting sleep may give it less time to do that.”

Independent studies involving disrupted sleep also displayed elevated levels of tau protein tangles, which were also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. While a causative link has yet to be established, the evidence that a good night’s sleep has the ability to slow both the progression and development of Alzheimer’s disease is getting increasingly more evident. MIMS

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