SCIENTISTS could be a step closer to preventing dementia thanks to a computer model designed in the North East.
Dr Carole Proctor, of Newcastle University, used computer simulations to shed new light on the processes which cause brain cells to die in Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.
Her research suggested that a simple healthy diet and exercise could help arm our brains against damage. Now, it is hoped her study could be the key to developing a treatment for the illness.
Dr Proctor said: “The predictions made by our computer model now need to be tested in the lab, but we hope our findings will give researchers some important new leads to follow.
“Being able to simulate the processes involved in dementia allows us to better focus our research, giving us a better chance of finding ways of intervening to prevent dementia.
“Our findings suggest that damage from free radicals plays a key role in the build-up of toxic proteins in the brain.
“We now need to see more research to examine whether reducing this damage – for example, by taking moderate exercise and eating a healthy diet – could help protect against dementia.
“Research is the only way we will defeat dementia, and I hope these findings will take us further towards that goal.”
Dr Proctor’s research – published in the journal PLoS ONE – investigated how toxic proteins build up on nerve cells in the brain, stopping them working properly. In Alzheimer’s disease, the culprit proteins are called amyloid and tau.
She built a computer model to test how cells with protein build-up reacted to the free radicals, molecules which are known to cause cell damage.
She then explored how a system of “chaperones” could stop build-up of the toxic proteins.
And she found that, although the chaperone system could cope with short periods of stress, it soon became overloaded, allowing cells to die. Now, the researchers hope to expand and develop the computer model to better understand the processes involved in Alzheimer’s disease and find new ways of preventing protein build-up.
But their findings suggest that simple lifestyle changes to boost the body’s natural antioxidant defences would limit free radical damage. Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, who part-funded the research, said: “This study provides us with new clues for research.
“It’s important that we find out more about what causes brain cells to die in dementia. We need to see more research to find out whether reducing damage from free radicals could have a protective effect.
“With 820,000 people in the UK affected by dementia, and nearly 3,000 people in Newcastle alone, research is vital if we are to find preventions and new treatments that are so desperately needed.”