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Tuesday, 17 October, 2000, 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK
Alzheimer's disease 'can be reversed'
Aricept is not available in some areas of the UK
Doctors believe they could be close to finding a way of reversing the effects of dementia in older people.

Research carried out at a hospital in Southampton has found that drug treatments could be used to "switch on" brain cells that were previously thought to be dead.

Tests carried out on a 70-year-old woman suffering from moderate dementia at Moorgreen Hospital found that her condition improved after undergoing drug therapy.

Doctors found that an increase in blood flow to her brain helped to restore brain cells and reverse the dementia.

The effect on the woman was quite dramatic

Dr Paul Kemp, University of Southampton

The doctors are using pioneering techniques that have previously only been available in the US.

As part of the study patients are prescribed the drug Aricept. They then undergo brain scans to see if there have been any improvements in their brain activity.

Dramatic results

Dr Paul Kemp, director of the Department of Nuclear Medicine at the University of Southampton and one of the project's leaders, said the changes in the 70-year-old patient were dramatic.

"For the first time we have clear proof of a remarkable increase in blood supply to the brain which in turn reflects improved activity in parts of the brain affected by the disease.

"This lady's initial scans seemed to show irreparable damage to the cells controlling short term memory and other thinking areas of the brain.

"But four months later the scan showed clearly that the cells we thought were dead were in fact lying dormant and could be switched back on.

"The effect on the woman was quite dramatic and was summed up by her daughter who said `my mother is back'.

"We are now looking at receptors on these dormant cells to prove or disprove the theory that they are the major pathway through which this disease is operating."

The drug Aricept is the first ever treatment for Alzheimer's and is not yet widely available on the NHS.

"Drugs like Aricept try to counterbalance the effects of this damage by increasing the number of chemical messengers in the brain to stimulate activity," explained Dr Kemp.

"We do not know why they work in some patients and not others but we believe the presence of certain brain receptors is important."

The research team has received 100,000 from the Wessex Medical Trust charity and PPP Healthcare Medical Trust for a pilot study to look in more detail at the effect of Aricept on these key brain receptors.

The first project will involve 25 patients with Alzheimer's who will be given the drug over a nine-month period and regularly scanned to detect differences in blood supply to the brain.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive, degenerative and irreversible brain disorder that causes intellectual impairment, disorientation and eventually death.

There is no cure. It is estimated that 2-5% of people over 65 years of age and up to 20% of those over 85 years of age suffer from the disease.

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14bn bill for Alzheimer's
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