Bath scientists uncover new clues in dementia mystery

Researchers from the University of Bath have new findings about a poorly understood yet common cause of dementia, Lewy Body disease.

Funded by the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, the research team led by Professor David Brown (Department of Biology & Biochemistry) has been studying the damaging effects of a protein, called alpha-synuclein, that builds up in the brains of people with Lewy Body disease and Parkinson’s disease. The findings are published in this month’s FASEB Journal.

Lewy Body disease affects over 25,000 people in the UK, and causes distressing hallucinations, confusion and movement problems.

Until now, there has been little understanding of how the alpha-synuclein protein harms the brain. The team has shown for the first time that an interaction between the protein and naturally-occurring trace metals creates a “toxic bomb” that damages brain cells.

The findings will help scientists understand what happens in the brain in both Lewy Body and Parkinson’s disease and could lead to new ways to develop treatments. One particular approach could be to try and block metals in the brain from joining with the protein, thus defusing the bomb.

Professor David Brown, who led the team at the University of Bath, said: “The results show the critical importance of metal ions and their interaction with alpha-synuclein in causing death of brain cells.

"They also show that small aggregates of proteins are more important than the larger ones that scientists have previously thought crucial.”

Rebecca Wood, Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: “Lewy Body disease and Parkinson’s are very distressing conditions and this Bath research is a vital step in the journey towards defeating them.

"By improving our understanding of the processes that take place in the brain during these diseases, we arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to push on for new treatments.

"Research into dementia is severely underfunded, yet the small amount underway is making excellent progress.”

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