By Dr Fiona McLean

TODAY marks the start of World Alzheimer’s Month, a programme raising awareness of this devastating disease – one that not only takes your life, but also your memories; what makes you who you are.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases, despite being the leading cause of death in the UK, but we are finding out more about these diseases all the time. My own research centres upon the group of cells within our brain that form a barrier between the blood and the nerve cells. The main cell type present in this "blood-brain barrier" acts like a bouncer on the door of a nightclub deciding what gets into the brain and what gets ejected. However, in dementia-related diseases it stops working properly. Toxic substances enter the brain while waste products, such as amyloid, are not removed. Blood-brain barrier failure can occur early in Alzheimer’s disease and may contribute to disease progression.

In more than 80 per cent of patients, amyloid is found embedded into the brain blood vessels. This frequency highlights why we need to research the blood-brain barrier and how it is affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

We also need to better understand the factors that drive the development of Alzheimer’s, such as metabolic syndrome – a cluster of conditions including obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure that occur simultaneously – which can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. My research looks at whether metabolic syndrome acts as a catalyst for problems in the blood-brain barrier. It is vitally important to understand the sequence of events leading up to and following blood-brain barrier problems and to better understand how metabolic syndrome can worsen outcomes.

The bad news is that metabolic syndrome is increasing in the UK, and this may be a key factor in the rise of Alzheimer’s cases. However, the good news is that if we modify our lifestyles, up to 40 per cent of dementia cases could be delayed or even prevented. It is important for people to understand that living healthier lifestyles can protect their brain, as only one-third of people currently think it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia. A public health campaign, Think Brain Health, has been launched to help raise awareness and give tips about how to look after your brain.

Dementia is now a worldwide epidemic, and we need to use innovative science and creative thinking to drive forward progress at a faster pace than we have seen before. Charities contribute tremendously to research, but we also need the UK Government to deliver the "moonshot" funding commitment that has been promised for years.

The blood-brain barrier is the first line of defence. If we can keep this working, then we can protect the rest of our brain cells. There are currently no medicines for Alzheimer’s disease which target the blood-brain barrier, meaning there is a whole area of untapped potential that could lead to a new generation of treatments. My research is a first step towards creating those new medicines.

Dr Fiona McLean is an Alzheimer’s Research UK Fellow, University of Dundee