Sep 18, 2023

Australian research leads the way towards dementia prevention

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Australian research is investigating potential links between gut health and cognitive decline, opening doors to new dementia prevention tools. [Source: Shutterstock]

Over 400,000 Australians are currently living with dementia, a number that’s set to double within the next 30 years. Dementia is also expected to become the leading cause of death of all Australians, and it already is the leading cause of death for women. 

Its prevalence is why Dementia Action Week (September 18-24) is so important: despite being so common and so impactful, there’s still so much we don’t know about dementia and its forms, including Alzheimer’s Disease. But the future of dementia research is here, today, as Australian scientists explore possible treatments, trends and contributing causes.

Doctor Andrew Shoubridge is one of the bright minds investigating potential causes of dementia at the world-renowned South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). 

“The whole point of Dementia Action Week is to raise awareness of this and make people more aware of the situation we’re in now, where it’s heading and what actions we need to take now,” Dr Shoubridge explained.

“There have been some big announcements this year for drugs that have shown some reductions in the amyloid beta in people for some of these clinical trials. These are the attempts to develop a cure for dementia. Unfortunately, it’s quite limited success and it’s because people have different forms of dementia. Dementia is complex.”

Dr Shoubridge is a Dementia Australia research grant winner, having been awarded the McCusker Charitable Foundation Project Grant to explore the role of gut microbiology, inflammation and the gut-brain axis as causes of dementia

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Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Chronic Disease And Neurodegeneration, SAHMRI. [Source: Twitter]

He said there is untapped potential in the gut-brain axis, which is effectively a communication system between our central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) and the enteric nervous system that coordinates the gastrointestinal tract.

“A lot of the historical work with dementia focuses on genetics but what’s come to light recently is that genetics only accounts for about 50% of dementia cases around the world,” Dr Shoubridge said.

“It’s these other factors called modifiable factors that actually have a big impact on the risk of dementia: things like diet, alcohol consumption, smoking, air quality, and exercise. They are really big things. The reason for my research is that we ingest a lot of those modifiable factors… this is a process that is happening throughout our entire lives.

“Depending on the choices and the exposures we have, we could be changing our internal health which may be causing us to have an earlier onset or a more aggressive form of dementia.”

A step towards prevention

The hope is that research like Dr Shoubridge’s will help prevent or reduce the risk of dementia in the future. National databases such as the Australian Dementia Network and the Registry of Senior Australians provide invaluable evidence and clinical trial participants, allowing researchers to pinpoint emerging trends related to medication use. 

While there is scope to predict if some Australians may develop dementia, prevention and treatment options are still in their infancy due to the wide number of contributing factors and forms of dementia. 

“We’re in a very critical period where we need to identify who’s most at risk in our community now and what can we do to prevent them from developing dementia. Is it a particular combination of medications causing people to develop dementia earlier? How are these medications changing the health of our gut which could be causing someone to develop dementia earlier than someone who’s not taking these medications?” Dr Shoubridge said.

SAHMRI’s research is also focused on childhood dementia, or Sanfilippo syndrome, which is a serious degenerative condition that causes fatal brain damage and limits life expectancy to between 12-20 years. Cutting-edge technology labelled as a ‘brain in a dish’ allows researchers to investigate whether modern drugs can be repurposed to help kids without having to test the medications on children. 

With several continuing research projects, there are positive signs of a major breakthrough soon. Dr Shoubridge’s research has identified emerging trends between gut health and cognitive decline. That may translate to real-world tests in comparing diets and nutritional intake, such as comparing the impact of a Mediterranean diet with others in aged care settings. For Dr Shoubridge, positive outcomes from his research would truly make it all worthwhile

“We’re doing this to try and improve the health of the community as quickly and as best as we can. It’s really helpful to have connections with the community so we can influence change. They recognise the importance and having this partnership with the community just makes my research so much more impactful and successful as a result,” he added.

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