Tracking the source of dementia

English8. January 2015

Scientists agree that a connection exists between Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, but how it works remains a mystery. Two young researchers are now trying to find the answer.
Text and photos: Teresa Grøtan

Assistant doctor Lasse Melvær Giil at the Haraldsplass Diaconal Hospital in Bergen was struck by an idea after reading

articles linking the dementia condition with cardiovascular disease.
Could it be, he asked himself, that Alzheimer’s does not arise in the brain but represents an immunological reaction to vascular damage?

He discussed this thought with immunologist and researcher Tove Ragna Reksten, and they contacted other well-established scientists and academics involved in geriatrics, cardiology and neurology as well as immunology.

The pair have now received financial support from the Kavli Trust to continue their hunt for a possible answer.

Several hypotheses exist about the possible trigger for Alzheimer’s disease. One of these proposes a neurovascular cause, involving damage to the microcirculation – the small blood vessels in the brain.

The project being pursued by Giil and Reksten takes this conjecture as its starting point, but goes a step further in seeking to explain how the problem could arise.

In their view, the answer does not lie in the brain itself but in an immune response to vascular injury in other parts of the body.

They want to investigate whether such damage could create difficulties for the brain in transporting away potentially harmful proteins across the brain-blood barrier.

The research team has worked intensively on developing specific, testable experiments in order to put this idea onto the laboratory bench.

“We’ve gathered up loose threads from various research projects to build a coherent hypothesis which can explain a lot about risk factors as possible new causal mechanisms,” says Reksten.

“Although this is a very original surmise, it’s scientifically founded and testable. If our work proves successful, it’ll be a paradigm shift for Alzheimer’s research.”

She and Giil have recruited a cross-disciplinary group of experienced medical professionals and academics in western Norway and at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute.

This team will now test the hypothesis with animal experiments and laboratory investigations of blood samples from Alzheimer’s sufferers supplied by the DemVest dementia project in western Norway.
“Getting funds for something nobody has researched before is very difficult,” says Giil. “For somebody like me, who doesn’t have a PhD, it would have been quite impossible. We now have an opportunity to test our idea in a top-class research environment.”

The Kavli Trust is pleased to be able to contribute early-stage financing of important but unproven research issues before results able to generate conventional funding have been obtained.