Dementia is a terminal condition where the sufferer can experience memory loss, confusion and problems with their speech and understanding. It is a condition that is distressing for both the sufferer and their family. A new study in America has claimed to see improvements in Alzheimer’s patients who have had infusions of young blood. So, what is the science behind the claim, is there truth in it, and could this be a new line of research for Dementia sufferers?
Dementia is a blanket term for numerous brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common type of dementia. There are currently 850,000 people who have dementia in the UK, with an estimated 46.8 million worldwide. The number is set to rise to 1 million in the UK by 2025. At the current rate, 1 person develops dementia every 3 minutes in the UK. Although dementia is usually associated with the elderly, 40,000 people under 65 in the UK have dementia too. Considering these figures, how is the condition currently treated and could it be better?
There is currently no cure for dementia. Instead, treatments are available to help alleviate some of the cognitive symptoms experienced by sufferers, hopefully slowing the rate of decline in the patient. One such treatment are AChE inhibitors. These drugs inhibit an enzyme which breaks down acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter (i.e. chemical messengers in the brain which transmit signals along nerve cells in the brain and nervous system). By reducing the break down of acetylcholine, the rate of cognitive decline is slowed, improving memory retention of sufferers. Side effects are present as with any drug, but the main concern is that the patient will eventually still decline. Is there another way to help dementia sufferers?
A trial started by researchers from Stanford University, California, tried just that. The company who ran the trial is now called Alkahest. In November 2017 18 people who suffered from Alzheimer’s aged between 54-86, received 4 weekly infusions of plasma (i.e. blood from which the red blood cells have been removed) from 18-30 year olds. The patients were monitored to assess their cognitive skills, mood and their general ability to manage their life independently. It was claimed that the patients showed improvements when completing daily tasks. There was no significant effect on cognition, but the two different tests which assessed a patient’s daily life skills both showed significant improvement after the infusion of young blood. The trial was conducted after a previous study on mice in 2005 demonstrated that infusions of young blood could rejuvenate certain mouse tissue, such as heart and brain tissue. It is thought that the hormones and other factors (e.g. such as growth factor) present in the younger blood, aid rejuvenation. The approach appears to have had a promising effect, so what’s the catch?
There are numerous things to consider before hailing this as a miraculous cure for dementia: 1) The test group was small and for a true result you would need a much larger test group, including the use of placebos. 2) Patients were tested by their carers. Any differences in a patient’s ability to perform the daily task test were determined by the patient’s carer, which in many cases might have been a family member, unintentionally looking for any sign of improvement. A well controlled trial would have conducted these tests under more stringent conditions, ensuring non-biased results. 3) It is difficult to make the jump from mouse to human models. Despite the rejuvenation of brain and heart tissue in the mice, that does not necessarily scale up to human models, and many more tests would be required to decide if there was a link. 4) Frequently exposing older people to foreign plasma may be unsafe. Introducing foreign plasma to them would lead to hyperactivation of their immune systems as they would be under constant strain to not reject the donated blood, possibly leading to an autoimmune or inflammatory disease.
Therefore, despite the media coverage this story received at the time the research was published, there is much more research required, and much stricter testing needed before firm conclusions can be drawn. However, despite the somewhat gaping holes in testing and results, some American companies are already charging hefty fees for transfusions of young people’s blood. The law is not as strict in the US with regards to receiving plasma. Some clinics are using a handful of sketchy research results to claim a miracle cure for numerous aliments, even using the phrase ‘the fountain of youth’. Overall, lots of avenues should be explored when dealing with a condition that affects such a large percentage of the Global population. However, scientists (and clinicians) should be careful to hail a new ‘cure’ or ‘miracle treatment’ too soon based on research that has not been tested thoroughly enough. It is sad to think that people suffering from such a horrible condition could pay an extortionate amount of money, after being promised better results than are likely.