Recent research in Japan could lead the way to a new target for Alzheimer's disease treatment.
A team led by scientists from Tokyo Medical and Dental University discovered that brain cell death - technically known as neuronal necrosis - occurs earlier in Alzheimer's progression than originally thought.
The disease is the leading cause of dementia in Western societies, with some estimates suggesting that 24 million people worldwide are living with it.
While the exact cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, the disease is often diagnosed on the basis of pathological changes in the brain, such as neuron loss and accumulations of protein aggregates called beta-amyloid plaques.
The disease is often preceded by mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but little is known about the changes that take place in the brain during the progression from MCI to Alzheimer's.
According to the latest research findings from Japan, preventing pathological changes in the brain at the MCI stage could eliminate Alzheimer's altogether.
The study discovered that brain cell death occurs much earlier than originally thought, with higher levels of necrosis seen in patients with MCI than in those with fully developed Alzheimer's.
Furthermore, the researchers found that by injecting a protein known as YAP into the cerebral spinal fluid of mice, they were able to prevent early-stage neuron loss, restore cognitive function and halt the development of beta-amyloid plaques.
Senior study author Hitoshi Okazawa said: "Confirming that neuronal necrosis was dependent on YAP was really the pivotal moment for us, but observing the almost transformative effects of YAP supplementation was hugely exciting.
"By showing that neuronal necrosis is YAP-dependent and begins prior to the onset of most symptoms, we predict that novel Alzheimer's disease therapies will be developed to prevent the initiation of Alzheimer's disease."
More research needed
These latest findings emerged shortly before Alzheimer's Research UK called on the British government to prioritise dementia research, after a report predicted that the number of people living with the condition across the UK and Europe will double by 2050.
According to data from Alzheimer Europe, the number of people with dementia in the UK is on course to rise to nearly two million within 30 years, while in Europe the number is predicted to surpass 16 million in the same period.
Alzheimer's Research UK recently published a report highlighting the key steps it believes the government needs to take to find a life-changing treatment for dementia. These included:
- Finding ways to detect the diseases that cause dementia 10 to 15 years earlier
- More effectively validating novel targets in early drug development
- Making the UK the best place to carry out clinical dementia research
- Improving understanding of dementia risk reduction and prevention
Samantha Benham-Hermetz, director of policy and public affairs at Alzheimer's Research UK, said it's "essential" that the government prioritises dementia and increases investment in research.