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UU Research Probes Alzheimer’s/Diabetes Links


Researchers at the University of Ulster have found that drugs being developed to combat diabetes could also prevent nerve degeneration caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

Neurobiologist Dr Christian Holscher, who heads the Alzheimer Research Group at the University’s Coleraine campus, has teamed up with the University’s internationally renowned diabetes research group to investigate links between two diseases.

Recent research has shown a surprising link between Alzheimer’s and diabetes, two of the major health challenges facing society today. According to Dr Holscher modern lifestyle promotes the development of type 2 diabetes, which in turn could drastically increase the number of people to develop Alzheimer’s disease as people with type 2 diabetes are much more likely to develop the disease than healthy people of the same age.

“Overeating, high fat and sugar content in the diet combined with little physical activity all increase the chances of a person developing type 2 diabetes. The number of people with this form of diabetes has rocketed in the last 10 years,” says Dr Holscher. “Type 2 diabetes used to be called ‘old age diabetes’, but now even children as young as 10 years old develop it. In the next decade, it is estimated that the number of obese people will double and that one in five will be considered obese or heavily overweight.”

He continued: “Blood sugar levels are high in type 2 diabetes patients because the cells do not respond to insulin any more. Insulin is the hormone that controls the levels of blood sugar and stimulates cell growth and repair.

“Alzheimer’s causes the brain to slowly degenerate. In the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s, proteins called beta-amyloid and tau accumulate and start to aggregate to lumps called plaques and tangles. Though all people have this protein, it appears to aggregate at alarming rates in some people and this can kill neurons over time,” explained Dr Holscher.

Recent research has shown that developing type 2 diabetes makes neurons in the brain more vulnerable to attack and to damaging influences. Protective mechanisms in the brain lose their effectiveness in protecting neurons and promoting growth and repair.

UU researchers are now investigating whether the drugs being developed to combat diabetes could also benefit the defence mechanisms of the brain against the neurodegeneration that develops in people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

Standard drugs given to diabetic patients do not enter the brain so the research team at UU has developed new techniques to test novel drugs on brain activity. Dr Holscher says he is very encouraged by recent research results.

“We have found that novel diabetes drugs not only improve type 2 diabetes but that they also have a powerful effect on neurons to help fight off the damaging effects of beta-amyloid proteins and plaques.

This research could pave the way to developing new drugs that are specific for the protection of the brain of diabetic people, said Dr Holscher.

David Young | alfa
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