Could infections cause dementia?

With over 353,800 Australians living with Alzheimer’s disease, it should come as no surprise that dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia. Worse still, there is no known cure. Dementia can happen to anybody, but it is more likely to occur to people over the age of 65.

Although there is no definite cause of Alzheimer’s, a new study published last week in the US journal Science Transitional Medicine suggests that it could stem from the brain’s past attempts to fight infection. The study’s findings are being hailed as ‘revolutionary’ and could lead to potential treatments for the prevention of dementia.

One of the study’s authors, Australian Rob Moir, who is an assistant professor in neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, explained to US media outlet PBS Newshour just what it is that this breakthrough research shows.

“Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and the neurodegeneration you see with it is thought to be caused by a little protein that forms this concrete-like substance in your brain called amyloid. Amyloid, it turns out, is actually an antimicrobial pit pod, that is to say it is a natural antibiotic that defends against infection in the brain and if you get a virus or bacteria that gets into the brain, it rises to do battle with it and binds to it and then entraps it in these long fibres and eventually entombs it forever.

“And as they mount in number, eventually they start to be toxic to our own cells, and that leads to the neurodegeneration. So, that’s what I bet it does. Was it important? Well, we are not saying this directly but what it certainly is very provocative in terms of suggesting is that there is an infection in AD, maybe low level, maybe many different pathogens increase into the brain and it has to form this amyloid around them and this is what drives the disease.”

And how could this contribute to future treatment or prevention of Alzheimer’s disease?

“If it does turn out to be an infection, there is a possibility of treating people before they get AD with vaccines, to target those particular bugs so that the pathogens don’t get a chance to infect the brain,” said Prof Moir.

Should this research be true, scientists could develop drugs that target the immune system to help stave off the onset of dementia. In the meantime, to help minimise your chances of developing Alzheimer’s, try to stay healthy, practice good hygiene and cross your fingers.

Related articles:
Dementia: are men seeking help?
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