Dan Parton (14/02/12) hopes tosee continued research progress ...

Two recently-published studies have brought us another stepcloser to understanding dementia and its effects on the brain,giving renewed hope that a cure can be found. The studies alsoreinforce the value of research into the condition.

Firstly, scientists in the US have shown that dementia moves along synapsesin a similar way to infections, meaning that the process mightbe able to be stopped, early on.

This finding is significant as it shows that dementia does notjust 'pop up' in different parts of the brain, over time, asformerly thought.

Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Cambridge havedeveloped a new way to study Alzheimer's disease using stem cells, whichallows researchers to track the disease over a matter of weeks.

Skin cells donated from healthy volunteers and those with Down'ssyndrome were turned into stem cells. These were then used togenerate networks of functioning nerve cells in the lab, whichresemble the complex wiring of cells in the human cerebral cortex,which makes up over three quarters of the brain and suffersparticular damage during Alzheimer's.

People with Down's syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome 21,a segment of DNA that carries a gene responsible for producing theAlzheimer's protein amyloid. Due to this extra version of the gene,people with Down's syndrome have a much higher incidence ofAlzheimer's than the rest of the population. By generating nervecells from the skin cells of people with Down's syndrome, thescientists could observe the disease process over a period of weeksand compare this to those cells derived from healthyvolunteers.

These studies again offer hope that a cure - or more effectivetreatment - for dementia might be on the horizon. One of themedical 'holy grails', it has taxed scientists for generations, butthese studies show that they may be getting closer to thebreakthrough.

While this is good news, it should always be remembered thatthis is research, so if any new treatments result from it, theywill not be available to the public for many years.

These studies also emphasise the importance of continuingresearch into dementia. In financially constrained times, researchis often one of the first things to suffer in a round of budgetcuts. But, with the promised breakthroughs dependent on furtherresearch, that could be a false economy.

People are living longer, so the number of people with thecondition is growing rapidly - and set to break through the 1million mark in the UK alone, within the next 10-15 years. Findinga cure, or more effective treatments, is therefore an imperative.The cost of dementia to the UK runs into billions per year, andfinding a cure could save a large proportion of that. When put inthose terms, can the Government afford not to invest inresearch?