This month, PM David Cameron announced a new scheme to raise awareness of dementia and its symptoms. Dementia Friends is a £2.4 million project funded by the Social Fund and the Department of Health  and led by the Alzheimer’s Society. Can this big budget programme find a cure for Alzheimer’s?
The scheme aims to recruit 1 million volunteers by 2015 to aid people who live with dementia and change the way we think of it as a nation. These volunteers will be trained to spot the first signs of dementia, as well as providing a network and community to help people who suffer from the disease to feel more understood and integrated in society as the stigma is removed. No, this will not cure Alzheimer’s, but it is the first of several measures to come as part of the government’s Dementia Challenge.
But first, what exactly is dementia?
Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition, meaning that brain tissue deteriorates over a period of time, during which patients lose cognitive abilities, namely memory, in addition to experiencing language problems, confusion and disorientation due to impaired visual-spatial skills – the ability to manipulate shapes and space in relation to yourself. Early symptoms are not often easily identified as they merely appear as difficulties in concentration and memory as well as absent-mindedness . Although there are many types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, accounting for over half of all cases .
One of the main theories for the cause of Alzheimer’s is an abnormal toxin form of the beta-amyloid protein which deposits tangles and plaques. Tangles are located inside brain cells and are made up from tau, a stabilizer of microscopic structures of the cytoplasm of the neuron cells. The bigger the tangles get, the more severe the cognitive damage. Differently to tangles, plaques accumulate as small round aggregated beta-amyloid deposits outside the neuron cell body which occur towards the final stages of Alzheimer’s. Both tangles and plaques lead to neuronal death, and are concentrated in the hippocampus and certain areas of the cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for recalling old memories and creating new ones, and learning, respectively . However, there is no correlation between the number of plaques and the extent of dementia .
Tangles and plaques spread to other areas of the brain, including the frontal lobe, responsible for thinking and planning and later language areas, resulting in trouble expressing oneself and anomia – the inability to name the words. Commonly, visual-spatial skills corresponding to the brain’s right hemisphere are impaired and the person begins to feel disoriented, as their sense of where they are in relation to surrounding objects and space slowly degenerates.
What the Dementia Challenge aims to do:
Today, dementia affects 800,000 people in the UK and 1/3 of people over the age of 95 ; yet despite the high proficiency and years of research, currently there is still no cure. Furthermore, only 43% of people with dementia actually receive a diagnosis . Most likely due to misconceptions, there can be a stigma attached to the cognitive deterioration seen in those suffering from dementia. The Dementia Challenge aims to remove this stigma, improving the care and lifestyle for those with the disease as well as focussing efforts on discovering better ways to detect the disease and, ultimately, find a cure.
The Dementia Challenge campaign’s measures following Dementia Friends include investing £9.6 million into dementia research and a £1 million prize fund for NHS organisations to find ways of increasing diagnoses . Research is paramount as many advances have been made in recent years and encouraging findings are on the increase.
Scientists are exploring numerous fields, sometimes with some strange findings! Earlier this year a study suggested that bilingualism could help prevent Alzheimer’s (post discussing this study coming soon). This may be related to the confirmed discovery that intellectual and social stimulation protects against dementia . Another major finding was the effect of the diabetes drug, rosiglitazone, on learning and memory in Alzheimer’s patients, which appeared to restore the neuronal signalling required for proper cognitive function.
Also, just last week it was revealed that scientists at University College London had discovered the involvement of a harmful mutated gene in an immune response to Alzheimer’s disease. The gene’s role is to produce white blood cells as an immune response to the beta-amyloid in the brain. However, the white blood cells are damaged in the mutated version of the gene, thus enabling the beta-amyloid to accumulate and the disease to develop. “People with the mutated gene have a threefold to fivefold increase in the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease in old age.” It is suggested that treatment can be developed based on these findings.
Other measures in the Dementia Challenge will include extra support for GPs so as to identify and diagnose dementia more quickly as well as incorporating memory tests as part of standard health checks for those aged 65-74. For those diagnosed, detailed information on services and support will be made readily available. Additionally, schemes will be introduced in schools to inform young people about dementia in order to fight the existing stigma. Finally, a grant a £50 million will be used to fund the improvement of hospitals and care home environments for people with dementia .
Hopefully, this campaign will improve the quality of life of people with dementia, allowing them to feel safe and comfortable in a society who and understands and is willing to help with the problems they face. As for finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, the research funding will enable many more studies to take place to work towards this reachable goal.
1. Department of Health http://www.dh.gov.uk
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