Could diabetes drugs point the way forward for treatments for Alzheimer’s?

ALZHEIMER’S disease and diabetes are so closely related that drugs used to control blood sugar levels could also slow the progression of dementia, according to new research.

Many Alzheimer’s patients also have Type-2 diabetes and until now scientists believed mental decline could only come after the development of the metabolic disorder.

However, experts at Aberdeen University have now proven that the degenerative brain disease can also lead to diabetes in the first study of its kind.

Lead researcher Professor Mirela Delibegovic

The team, led by professors Bettina Platt and Mirela Delibegovic found the conditions are so closely related that medicines currently used to regulate glucose levels in people with diabetes may also alleviate the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s.

Exploring the links between Diabetes and Alzheimer's

The groundbreaking work at Aberdeen began four years ago when the experts discussed aspects of their specialities, with Platt leading an Alzheimer’s research team and Delibegovic heading work on diabetes.

“You cannot look at a disease in complete isolation. If you have a disorder of the brain, that can have quite a powerful impact on other parts of the body. That is not a one way street.

It really is a vicious circle but at the same time it gives us new ideas about interventions and therapeutics.”​

Professor Bettina Platt
Lead Researcher, Aberdeen University

The group developed a new model of Alzheimer’s disease and found that increased levels of a gene involved in the production of toxic proteins in the brain not only led to dementia-like symptoms, but also to the development of diabetic complications.

Platt said: “Around 80 per cent of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have some form of diabetes or disturbed glucose metabolism. This is hugely relevant as Alzheimer’s is in the vast majority of cases not inherited, and lifestyle factors and co-morbidities must therefore be to blame.

“Until now, we always assumed that obese people get Type-2 diabetes and then are more likely to get dementia. We now show that actually it also works the other way around. Additionally, it was previously believed that diabetes starts in the periphery – the pancreas and liver – often due to consumption of an unhealthy diet, but here we show that dysregulation in the brain can equally lead to development of very severe diabetes, so again showing that diabetes doesn’t necessarily have to start with your body getting fat, it can start with changes in the brain.”

She went on: “This study provides a new therapeutic angle into Alzheimer’s disease and we now think that some of the compounds that are used for obesity and diabetic deregulation might potentially be beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients as well.

“The good news is that there are a number of new drugs available right now which we are testing to see if they would reverse both Alzheimer’s and diabetes symptoms.

“We will also be able to study whether new treatments developed for Alzheimer’s can improve both, the diabetic and cognitive symptoms.”

The research is published in the journal Diabetologia and the team is now working with brain tissue banks and a pharmaceutical firm to take its findings forward.

However, Platt cautioned that they are unlikely to find a universal treatment for patients.

She said: “It’s unlikely to be effective for everybody. It’s quite a diverse group of patients, it’s a complex problem. We need to look at this much more holistically. Researchers need to come together. Our understanding of what the causes are is still very fragmented. We must understand much better why one person can have healthy ageing and the other one not.”

Article by Kirsteen Paterson for The National , first published 22/06/16

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