The discovery may lead to development of drugs that halt disease progression and stop memory loss

According to research funded by the British Heart Foundation, a breakthrough in understanding Alzheimer’s disease has revealed changes to blood vessels in the brain, potentially presenting a path for developing new drugs to help fight the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is traditionally thought of as a disease of the brain cells, where the protein Amyloid-beta (Aβ) accumulates and forms plaques. There is growing evidence, however, that the blood supply to the brain is also affected.

Researchers at the University of Manchester have found that a smaller version of the protein – called Amyloid-β 1-40 (Aβ 1-40) – builds up in the walls of the small arteries and reduces blood flow to the brain.

The surface of the brain is covered with small pial arteries which control the brain’s supply of blood and oxygen. If these arteries become narrowed for too long, the brain can’t get enough nutrients and this is one of the causes of memory loss seen in people with the disease.

When the team looked at pial arteries of older mice with Alzheimer’s that produced too much Aβ1-40, they found that the arteries were narrower compared to those of healthy mice. This narrowing was found to be caused by Aβ 1-40 switching off a protein known as BK which, when working normally, sends a signal which causes arteries to widen.

The researchers now plan to investigate which part of Aβ 1-40 blocks the BK protein, so drugs to stop this from happening can be developed and tested accordingly.

Dr Adam Greenstein, clinical senior lecturer in cardiovascular sciences at the University of Manchester, explained: “To date, over 500 drugs have been trialled as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. All of them have targeted the nerves in the brain and none of them have been successful. By showing exactly how Alzheimer’s disease affects the small blood vessels, we have opened the door to new avenues of research to find an effective treatment.”

Professor Metin Avkiran, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, concluded: “This research is an important step forward in our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. More than half a million people in the UK are living with the condition, and that number is set to rise as our population gets older.”

“These findings could lead to a desperately needed treatment for this devastating condition,” he added.