Dementia guide

Is there a cure for dementia?

The concept that dementia is a disease rather than an inevitable side effect of ageing (so-called senile dementia) has been around for over 100 years.

But after over a century of research, there's still a lot we don't know about the condition and if dementia can be cured.

Dementia charities have argued, with some justification, that there is a lack of funding for research into dementia compared with research into treatments for other long-term conditions, such as cancer.

However, many areas of research may lead to more effective treatments and, possibly, a cure for dementia. Inevitably, such treatments are many years, probably decades, of hard work away.

Even without a cure, there is reason to believe that a continuous improvement in the standards of dementia care can be achieved.  

Here are some of the current promising areas of dementia research.

Gene therapy for dementia

Gene therapy is a field of medicine where genetic material is used to try to prevent or cure a disease.

While the theory behind gene therapy has been discussed since the 1970s, this is a very new area of research, and there is currently only one licensed treatment available in the UK.

In dementia, gene therapy aims to stop brain cells dying, or possibly replace them, but it may be several years before human trials can begin.

Dementia vaccine

Some researchers are studying what has been termed a dementia vaccine. This would be a medication to "teach" the immune system to recognise the abnormal deposits of protein (such as amyloid plaques) in Alzheimer's disease that are thought to cause the damage to brain cells.

The immune system would then attack these plaques, which may slow the progression of the condition. Researchers are studying several different ways of doing this, ranging from vaccines to infusions of antibodies.

Stem cells and dementia

Stem cells are "building block" cells. They can develop into many different cell types, including brain cells.

Two main avenues of research into the use of stem cells in dementia are being explored.

First, stem cells can be manipulated so they mimic some of the body's processes that may cause the development of dementia. Doing this will help scientists to better understand dementia. It also allows researchers to predict the effects of potential dementia drugs more accurately.

Second, researchers hope that one day, stem cells could be used to develop new brain cells to replace the cells that are damaged by dementia.

Psychological interventions for dementia

These advances in complex technology are important, but there have also been developments in helping people to deal with their psychological symptoms. These include:

  • cognitive stimulation – where people take part in activities and exercises designed to improve their memory, problem-solving skills and language ability
  • validation therapy – where people are encouraged to explore what things were like for the person in the past and how this relates to the way they are feeling now

Research into improving these approaches continues, and other new approaches are also being explored. These include social media support groups and memory improvement apps.

Another goal of research into psychological interventions is to find ways to help manage challenging behaviour in people with dementia without having to resort to antipsychotic medicines.

One method that is providing promising results is known as functional analysis. This is based on the theory that the best way to manage challenging behaviour is to understand the motivation driving it. People with dementia often act in challenging ways because they feel their needs are not met, and that makes them upset.

Join dementia research

There are dozens of dementia research projects going on around the world; many of these are based in the UK. You may be able to help scientists better understand the disease by taking part in research.

This includes studies looking at how our genes, or even our lifestyle, may play a role in our risk of developing dementia.

You can sign up to take part in trials on the NHS Join Dementia Research website.

Page last reviewed: 17/06/2015

Next review due: 17/06/2017


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