Researchers have discovered a link between Alzheimer’s disease and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

As a result, drugs used to treat type 2 diabetes could also be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and vice versa, according to research from the University of Aberdeen.

The study found that Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes are so closely related that drugs currently used to control blood sugar (glucose) levels in people with type 2 diabetes could also ease the symptoms and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease could be treated by the same medication

This was the first study of its kind to show that Alzheimer’s disease can lead to type 2 diabetes, as opposed to diabetes occurring first as was previously thought. 

The paper, published in the journal Diabetologia, found for the first time that dementia-related complications within the brain can also lead to changes in glucose handling and ultimately type 2 diabetes. This is contrary to what was previously thought - that diabetes begins with a malfunction in the pancreas or a high fat, high sugar diet.  

The research was led by Professor Bettina Platt in collaboration between her Alzheimer’s research team and the diabetes research team led by Professor Mirela Delibegovic. The teams were keen to investigate why the two conditions were so commonly found together in elderly people.

The researchers developed a model of Alzheimer’s disease and were surprised to find that increased levels of a gene involved in the production of toxic proteins in the brain not only led to Alzheimer’s -like symptoms, but also to the development of complications related to type 2 diabetes.

Professor Platt said: “Many people are unaware of the relationship between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease, but the fact is that around 80% of people with Alzheimer’s disease also have some form of diabetes or disturbed glucose metabolism. This is hugely relevant as Alzheimer’s is in the vast majority of cases not inherited, and lifestyle factors and [additional health problems] must therefore be to blame.

“Our research teams are particularly interested in the impact of lifestyle related factors in dementia and by collaborating with experts in diabetes and metabolism, we have been able to investigate the nature of the link in great detail.

“Until now, we always assumed that obese people get type 2 diabetes and then are more likely to get dementia – we now show that actually it also works the other way around. 

“Additionally, it was previously believed that diabetes starts in the periphery, i.e. the pancreas and liver, often due to consumption of an unhealthy diet, but here we show that dysregulation in the brain can equally lead to development of very severe diabetes - so again showing that diabetes doesn’t necessarily have to start with your body getting fat – it can start with changes in the brain.

“This study provides a new therapeutic angle into Alzheimer’s disease and we now think that some of the compounds that are used for obesity and diabetic deregulation might potentially be beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients as well.  The good news is that there are a number of new drugs available right now which we are testing to see if they would reverse both Alzheimer’s and diabetes symptoms. We will also be able to study whether new treatments developed for Alzheimer’s can improve both, the diabetic and cognitive symptoms.”

An NHS Behind the Headlines report on the study concluded: “This study, suggesting a mechanism which may be involved in the early stages of both diseases, may increase the likelihood that common treatments will be useful.

“The study’s main limitation is that it was carried out on mice, and studies in animals do not always translate directly to people. It is important to realise the study was not looking at ways to cure either diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, but only at an enzyme which may be implicated in the development of both. We do not know exactly what effect it has on humans.

“Studies like these, carried out on laboratory animals, can play an important role in helping us discover more about diseases and their causes. But we won't know whether this insight will help to find a treatment for Alzheimer's disease until there have been human trials.

“If you had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, then sticking to your recommended treatment plan, in terms of diet and medication, should help reduce your Alzheimer's risk.”

Read more about Alzheimer's disease on the NHS Choices website
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