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Dr Sastre's Dementia Research Project

Scientists in London have found that a protein increased during exercise could help protect against Alzheimer’s disease. It’s hoped their findings could be used to design drugs to fight the disease.

Researchers at Imperial College London, part-funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, are investigating the link between exercise and Alzheimer’s, as well as the links between the disease and type 2 diabetes.

Their work is focused on a protein called PGC-1a, which is involved in regulating diabetes and increases during exercise. It is already known that regular exercise can help prevent type 2 diabetes and may lower a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The team studied brain samples from people with Alzheimer’s and healthy people, and found there was less of the protein in the brains of people who had the disease. Further investigation found cells with more PGC-1a produced less of the toxic amyloid protein that builds in the brain in Alzheimer’s. Their findings are published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which currently affects over 820,000 people in the UK.

Dr Magdalena Sastre, who led the study, said: "These early results tell us much more about how diabetes and Alzheimer’s are linked, but more importantly, they have given us a potential treatment target. Research is the only way to defeat dementia, and it is essential that we follow up this work to see whether drugs that raise the levels of the PGC-1a protein could help protect against Alzheimer’s."

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “This important study gives us more insight into the links between Alzheimer’s and diabetes, which have been known about for some time but are not yet fully understood. The results also give new understanding on why exercise could help reduce Alzheimer’s risk. It’s vital that we follow up this study and continue to invest in research, which is the only way we can defeat dementia."

The Science

Dr Magdalena Sastre

The researchers will follow up their findings as part of an ongoing four-year project worth £377,000, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK. Some of the funding has come directly from Alzheimer’s Research UK Champions Jamie and Vicki Graham, who raised a record-breaking £200,000 on a fundraising row.

Jamie, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s four years ago, rowed up the Thames with a crew of 15 oarsmen that included two former Olympians. He and his wife Vicki, who helped organise the challenge, have been made Champions of Alzheimer’s Research UK in recognition of their support. Jamie said:

“I’m thrilled to know that the project we’re supporting is already producing results. This research is especially significant for me, as although there are many day-to-day things I can no longer do, keeping fit and active is really helpful for me. Although it’s heartening to hear about the progress being made, dementia research is still desperately under-funded, and I would urge everyone to support this important cause.

Donations to Alzheimer’s Research UK help fund Dr Sastre’s research project, looking at the link between exercise and dementia.