Could arthritis offer protection against Alzheimer’s?

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Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating condition that is characterised by progressive cognitive decline leading to severe dementia and an increasing dependence on others for personal and practical care.

Rheumatoid arthritis or RA is an autoimmune disease that is characterised by inflammation of the joints and tissues surrounding the joints, and can also affect the organs. In an autoimmune disease the immune system, which is designed to protect the body against infections and disease, mistakenly attacks healthy tissues.

How can one benefit the other?

The BBC recently reported on a study which found that a protein that is produced in Rheumatoid arthritis might actually protect against the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study which was carried out by researchers from the University of South Florida’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Centre and Research Institute along with Saitama Medical University in Japan, found that the protein known as GM-CSF, levels of which are elevated in people with RA, can trigger the immune system into destroying the protein plaques that are a feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

The research involved mice that had been genetically engineered to have a condition that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. These mice were then given injections of the protein for a period of almost 3 weeks.

What the researchers found was that there was an increase in what are called Microglial cells in the brains of mice that had been injected with the protein. The mice performed better in learning and memory tests than those who hadn’t been injected with the protein and even normal mice that had been injected with the protein were able to improve their performance compared to normal mice that hadn’t received the protein.

Microglial cells work in much the same way as white blood cells do in that they mop up invaders in the body.

Scientists have already noticed that there appears to be a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in people suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis but many believe that this may be due to the use of certain types of anti inflammatory medication in the treatment of RA. This study suggests another possibility.

It’s also important to note that this study was not a study on humans but on mice and as such no definitive conclusions can be drawn as to how effective treatment with the protein would be in humans with Alzheimer’s disease. No doubt future research in this area will be forthcoming and enlightening.

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