Dementia is quickly becoming one of the most common mental health problems in the world. Of those suffering from dementia, the most common condition is Alzheimer’s disease. It’s expected that in just over 30 years time, 140 million people across the world will be suffering from this condition.
Research has shown that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by areas of the brain shrinking (known as atrophy). This then affects the structure and function of various parts of the brain. There is still no direct link in regards to what causes this. However, what scientists do know is that proteostasis is part of the problem. This is the process that causes the brain to accumulate misfolded proteins. In regards to what sets off this process, there is no answer.
However, what we do know is that certain medical conditions can accelerate it. Diabetes, for example, is a risk factor when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease. This is because the pathological mechanisms of these two diseases reinforce each other. Previous research has shown that diabetes, especially type two, is linked to brain atrophy. As well as cognitive impairment.
Diabetes is caused by the body having problems producing or using insulin. Research has shown that there are similar problems with how people who suffer from Alzheimer’s use insulin in their brains.
What needs to be focused on, to find out whether insulin can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, is the impact is has on astrocytes. These are specialist brain cells that help to maintain the brain’s environment. As well as supplying the nerve cells with nutrients and helping to restore brain function after an injury.
Two proteins are known as the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease; these are amyloid and tau. They are found in and around nerve cells, causing damage to them. It’s clear that these proteins are part of the problem when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease. But the impact they have on the development of it is still unclear. However, what we do know is that as levels of these proteins increase in the brain, astrocytes begin to lose their ability to use insulin. This, in turn, may impact brain function and stop other cells from working properly.
It is believed that disruption of insulin signalling in the brain can impact the role of astrocytes. It is thought that this can then damage the nerve cells that they support. It may also affect astrocytes from being able to deal with the clumps of protein found around nerve cells.
To determine whether this is correct, a study is taking place. This study is looking at how insulin impacts these cells. As well as, what impact amyloid and tau proteins can have in the process. Including if the presence of these proteins can prevent astrocytes from working with other cells. Leading to these cells not being able to function as they should do.
This research should make it easier to understand what the impact of a lack of insulin is on the brain. As well as, whether insulin could be a suitable method of treatment for Alzheimer’s patients. There are various studies underway that are trying to determine if insulin could be a safe method to use.
Hopefully, soon we’ll have a new method of treatment for dealing with the most common form of dementia – Alzheimer’s disease.