Top UK expert hopes for Alzheimer's disease treatment by 2040

One of the UK's leading experts on Alzheimer's disease says there's reason to hope for an effective treatment by 2040.
John Loeffler
Alzheimer's disease
Alzheimer's disease


One of the UK's leading experts on Alzheimer's disease says that there's reason to hope for an effective treatment for the most common form of the disease by 2040.

Professor Julie Williams at Cardiff University says that in 2009, there were just three genes known to be related to Alzheimer's disease, but today there are 92, a massive increase in knowledge about the debilitating disease.

"Things are speeding up and improving all the time," Williams told the BBC. "I've learnt more in the last seven years than I did in the previous 20."

Williams, the director of the UK Dementia Research Institute at Cardiff University has been studying the disease for 30 years. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive form of dementia that currently has neither cure nor effective treatment to slow the progression of symptoms.

Williams is optimistic though that advanced gene therapies will reveal more about the disease and hopefully lead doctors, researchers, and ultimately patients and their families to a treatment that will slow or even stop the onset of cognitive deterioration.

"Once you know where to start looking then you can study the effects which genes have on specific brain activity," Williams said.

Progress toward treatment through the years

The progress on Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts 850,000 people in the UK each year, while there are more than 10 million new dementia cases every year around the globe, according to Alzheimer's Disease International.

Not all dementia symptoms are tied to Alzheimer's disease, but Alzheimer's is the leading diagnosis of those suffering from dementia, so targeting Alzheimer's disease is especially important to stem the anticipated rise in those suffering from dementia in the years and decades ahead.

"Tests which cost millions in the '90s can now be carried out for around £30," Williams said. "For example, we now know that defective genes [are] changing the way immune cells called microglia work."

These are the bin lorries of the brain clearing away what they see as rubbish," she explains. "They may be less efficient at clearing genuine rubbish and mistakenly kill off healthy brain cells, including synapses. Of course, synapses are the connections between neurons, so if they get eliminated when they shouldn't then you lose connections, you lose thought, you lose memories."

Decades of research into Alzheimer's disease and dementia indicate that there isn't a single "cure" for the disease, but that treatment will need to take a more holistic approach, attacking its various causes from any and every possible angle.

Williams hopes that the pace of progress can lead to some effective treatments by 2040, when dementia cases are expected to rise sharply.

"By 2040 I think we'll be in the position to offer a range of treatment and we might not know exactly why, but one of them will be able to act on the huge range of causes," she said.

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