A team at the University of Leeds, part-funded by Alzheimer's Research UK, the UK's leading dementia research charity, and the Medical Research Council (MRC) studied an enzyme called alkaline phosphatase. It's thought the enzyme could be linked to the build-up of tau, a hallmark toxic protein in Alzheimer's disease.
The researchers, led by Prof Nigel Hooper, studied blood plasma samples and post-mortem brain tissue, provided by the MRC London Neurodegenerative Diseases Brain Bank, from people with Alzheimer's and from healthy people. They found that people with the disease had more of the enzyme in the hippocampus - one of the first regions of the brain to be damaged in Alzheimer's - than healthy people when they died.
People with the disease also had greater levels of the enzyme in their blood. Further analysis showed that higher levels of alkaline phosphatase were associated with a greater loss of cognitive function.
Although levels of the enzyme in blood samples were higher in Alzheimer's, the measurements were still within the normal range, meaning they would not be useful for diagnosing the disease. However, the findings could give researchers a new tool for clinical trials, helping them to monitor how people are responding to treatments.
The findings are published today (20 October) in the journal Neurodegenerative Diseases.
"Dementia is not a normal part of ageing, and with research it can be beaten, but we need to know much more about its causes in order to develop effective treatments. I hope our research can help bring us a step closer to that goal."
"Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, which currently affects 820,000 people in the UK and more than 7,500 people in Leeds alone. If we are to find new treatments that could really benefit people in the future, it's crucial that we invest in research now."
"What's so fascinating about this study is that the researchers were able to directly compare healthy tissue with samples from Alzheimer's sufferers to demonstrate the importance of alkaline phosphatase levels in the brain.
"This cutting-edge research would not be possible without access to a reliable supply of high-quality brain tissue samples, which is why the UK Brain Banks network is so important as a national resource to support neuroscience research."
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