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Brain study paves way for therapy for common cause of dementia

Jul 2018: A team involving CCBS researchers has published findings suggesting that reversing damage to the cells that line the small blood vessels in the brain could offer new avenues for therapy in dementia and stroke caused by small vessel disease.

A team led by the University of Edinburgh has uncovered a potential approach to treat small vesssel disease (SVD), which is a major cause of dementia and can also worsen the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. SVD is responsible for almost half of all dementia cases in the UK and is a major cause of stroke, accounting for around one in five cases.

The team, led by Professor Anna Williams (MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine), with CCBS researchers Professor Joanna Wardlaw and Professor Colin Smith, showed that SVD occurs when the endothelial cells that line the small blood vessels in the brain become dysfunctional. The dysfunction causes them to secrete a heat shock protein, which inhibits the formation of myelin-producing cells and damages the white matter of the brain.

Studies in rats found that treatment with drugs that stop blood vessel cells from becoming dysfunctional reversed the symptoms of SVD and prevented brain damage.

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. 

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.

Professor Anna WilliamsGroup Leader at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine

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.

Related links

Read the scientific article in Science Translational Medicine: 'Reversal of endothelial dysfunction reduces white matter vulnerability in cerebral small vessel disease in rats' by Rajani et al. DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aam9507

UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh

Professor Joanna Wardlaw's profile

Professor Colin Smith's profile