New study paves way for therapy for common cause of dementia

New study paves way for therapy for common cause of dementia


Monday, 9 July, 2018

Research led by Professor Anna Williams (MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine) and published in Science Translational Medicine has uncovered a potential approach to treat one of the most common causes of dementia and stroke in older people – small vessel disease (SVD).

Small vessel disease is a major cause of dementia and can also worsen the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. It is responsible for almost half of all dementia cases in the UK and is a major cause of stroke, accounting for about 1 in 5 cases. 

Scans of small vessel disease patients typically show white matter damage, however until now the mechanistic link between blood vessels and white matter myelin damage was unknown. 

Researchers found that in a rat model of SVD endothelial cell dysfunction in the blood brain barrier was the primary cause of white matter damage. These dysfunctional endothelial cells secrete heat shock protein 90a which contributes to impaired myelination. However, treatment of rats with endothelial cell stabilising drugs was able to reverse these abnormalities. 

Further studies will be required to test whether this treatment is also effective once the disease is firmly established, and to examine if the treatment is able to reverse the symptoms of dementia. 

The research was carried out at the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh. It was funded by the MRC, Alzheimer’s Research UK and Fondation Leducq.


Professor Anna Williams, Group Leader at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, said: “This important research helps us understand why small vessel disease happens, providing a direct link between small blood vessels and changes in the brain that are linked to dementia. It also shows that these changes may be reversible, which paves the way for potential treatments.”


Dr Sara Imarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK said: “Changes to the blood supply in the brain play an important role in Alzheimer’s disease as well as being a direct cause of vascular dementia. This pioneering research highlights a molecular link between changes to small blood vessels in the brain and damage to the insulating ‘white matter’ that helps nerve cells to send signals around the brain.

“The findings highlight a promising direction for research into treatments that could limit the damaging effects of blood vessel changes and help keep nerve cells functioning for longer. There are currently no drugs that slow down or stop Alzheimer’s disease and no treatments to help people living with vascular dementia. Alzheimer’s Research UK is very pleased to have helped fund this innovative research, which is only possible thanks to the work of our dedicated supporters.”