While the exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease remains mystery, the manifestation of the disease as one showing progressive cognitive decline is widely understood. But new research suggests that the biology of this disease is not limited to the brain.

Scientists at the University of Aberdeen have found what could be a new link between type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. The finding opens new avenues of potential treatments for those diagnosed with the disease. Drugs that treat diabetes might find an additional application as Alzheimer’s disease therapies.

Diseases linked by a gene

The University of Aberdeen research was published recently in the journal Diabetologia. Studying mice, the researchers found that a gene already linked to the production of the proteins in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease was also linked the complications of diabetes. More specifically, the dementia-related problems in the brain can also lead to the changes in the way that the body handles glucose, which leads to diabetes, Science Daily explained. These findings contrast from earlier thinking about diabetes, which suggested that the disease begins in the pancreas, or is the result of poor diet high in fat and sugar. According to Science Daily, the study is the first to show evidence that Alzheimer’s disease might lead to diabetes, rather than diabetes occurring first.

The findings came about through the collaboration of both Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes research teams. Bettina Platt, an Alzheimer’s disease expert at the university, worked with a team led by diabetes expert Mirela Delibegovic. Both teams wanted to understand why many elderly patients are diagnosed with both Alzheimer’s and diabetes together. Their research uncovered the single gene which appears to have a role in both diseases. Platt said that the findings are significant because an estimated 80 percent of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease also have diabetes or some other glucose metabolism disorder. “This is hugely relevant as Alzheimer’s is in the majority of cases not inherited, and lifestyle factors and co-morbidities must therefore be to blame,” Platt said.

A new therapeutic approach

Doctors have a scant few therapies available to them to treat patients who have Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, the available therapies address the symptoms of the disease rather than getting at the underlying cause of the disorder. Pratt said that she thinks some of the compounds used in treating obesity and diabetes hold the potential to also helping Alzheimer’s disease patients. Those drugs might treat not only the symptoms of these diseases, they might be able to address the underlying cause of the disease, as well. “The good news is that there are a number of new drugs available right now which we are testing to see if they would reverse both Alzheimer’s and diabetes symptoms,” she said.

A cautious view of the findings

The Alzheimer’s Society urges patients and caregivers to view these findings with caution and restraint. The research is still preliminary and the underlying mechanisms apparently linking Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes are not yet completely understood, the society said. Furthermore, the University of Aberdeen scientists only conducted their studies in mice and more research must be conducted in order to understand whether the research findings hold true in people. But the Alzheimer’s Society is contributing financial resources to support the research of existing diabetes drugs as possible Alzheimer’s disease treatments.

Other medical professionals are also expressing restraint about the findings until more is known. Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimer’s UK, told London’s Daily Mail that scientists have known for some time that diabetes patients are also at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. She added that clinical trials are already underway to understand whether diabetes drugs could help Alzheimer’s patients. These trials will take years. Until we know more, Sancho said that people do have options to support their brains. Not smoking, eating a balanced diet, drinking in moderation, and staying physically and mentally active are all ways to help keep the brain healthy, she said.

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