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The role of the immune system in dementia

17 March 2023

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting one’s memories and ability to do cognitive tasks, as well as causing hallucinations and loss of motor control. It’s the leading cause of death in women and 2nd leading cause of death in men in the UK, with over 850,00 people currently diagnosed, and it costs the NHS approximately £26 billion per year, one fifth of their annual budget.

In our recent Research Showcase event, Dr Mat Clement (PhD 2013) and Dr Wiola Zelek (PhD 2020) from the School of Medicine, discuss the role of infectious viruses, the immune system, and neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s development. They explain more about their work and share ground-breaking new therapies for treating the disease.

Mat’s research looks at the link between Alzheimer’s development and cytomegalovirus (CMV). CMV is an infection that occurs in 50-70% of the population, often unnoticed due to predominantly being asymptomatic. But his research found that the presence of CMV in Alzheimer’s patients is detrimental; the immune system sends viral-specific T-cells into the brain to fight CMV, which creates inflammation and exacerbates cognitive decline.

Mat decided to target this inflammation with anti-viral treatments to destroy the T-cells. Results were hugely positive, the treatment not only destroying the T-cells but actively rescuing and repairing the cognitive decline.

Similarly, Wiola’s research focuses on the role of the complement system in Alzheimer’s development. The complement system responds to infections in the body by tagging and destroying pathogens. When it becomes dysregulated, part of the system known as MAC attacks synapses, driving inflammation, and contributing to Alzheimer’s development.

Wiola developed antibodies to stop this formation of MAC, as well as creating a “trojan horse” method of drug delivery, attaching the antibodies to shuttles to ensure they were able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and access the brain non-invasively. After one week of treatment, the antibodies restored the synapses and cognitive function. Now, Wiola looks to strengthen these antibodies and undertake clinical trials for patients.

By looking at dementia and Alzheimer’s as immune-driven, Cardiff University is developing unique treatments and is one step closer to stopping the diseases in their tracks.

Watch our Research Showcase event to learn more.

Find out more about supporting neuroscience and mental health research at Cardiff University.