Researchers at the University of Manchester have made a discovery which could potentially lead to a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The team have discovered changes to the blood vessels in the brain in those with the condition, which may lead to the development of new and more effective treatments.

The conventional understanding of Alzheimer’s to date is that it is caused by plaques and tangles that build up in the brain, when a protein called Amyloid-beta accumulates in the brain cells. The research team at Manchester have now found that a smaller version of the protein builds up in the walls of the arteries that control blood flow to the brain.

Dr Adam Greenstein, clinical senior lecturer in cardiovascular sciences at the University of Manchester, explained: “To date, over 500 drugs have been trialled as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. All of them have targeted the nerves in the brain and none of them have been successful.”

He added: “By showing exactly how Alzheimer’s disease affects the small blood vessels, we have opened the door to new avenues of research to find an effective treatment.”

The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the findings have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The smaller arteries which are key to the new discovery are called pial arteries, and there is a network of them in the brain.

When the pial arteries become narrowed, it reduces the blood flow to the brain, and it becomes starved of nutrients. This leads to the impaired cognitive functioning and memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers identified the protein, known as Aβ 1-40, which causes the narrowing of the arteries.

Further investigations are also planned into precisely which part of the protein is responsible for blocking the arteries, so that a drug can be developed to counteract the effect.

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, commented: “This research is an important step forward in our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. More than half a million people in the UK are living with the condition, and that number is set to rise as our population gets older.”

He added: “These findings could lead to a desperately needed treatment for this devastating condition.”

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that affects about 55 million people worldwide, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It primarily affects those over the age of 65, but it can develop in younger people as well. It is not an inevitable part of getting older, and it is not just about being forgetful.

Alzheimer’s is a terminal disease which eventually leads to the loss of mobility and other major bodily functions. Many sufferers die of infections such as pneumonia before they reach the end stage of the disease. It is a very distressing condition for both the patient and their family and friends, as the person loses the ability to recognise loved ones over time.

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