Dementia describes clusters of symptoms associated with brain decline that get progressively worse over time. Common signs of dementia include impaired concentration, memory loss and confusion. The goal of research is to understand the complex mechanisms that cause dementia in a bid to thwart them.
Some of the most important advances in dementia research have drawn a link between lifestyle factors and the risk of developing dementia.
New research conducted by scientists from Cambridge University may have discovered a new method for mitigating the risk.
The research suggests cold water immersion could help bolster the brain’s defences against dementia and other degenerative diseases.
The finding emerged after scientists found elevated levels of the “cold-shock” protein — RBM3 — in the bloodstream of swimmers in London’s Parliament Hill Lido.
The compound has been shown to slow the onset of dementia and even repair some of the damage it causes in mice.
According to Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who runs the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge, the discovery ignites hope of developing new drug treatments to stave off the threat of dementia.
The research, which is preliminary at this stage, draws on our understanding of the hibernation mechanism that all mammals possess, which is prompted by exposure to cold temperatures.
The link with dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses – the connections between cells in the brain.
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In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, these brain connections are destroyed.
This precipitates the symptoms associated with dementia – including memory loss – and the eventual death of brain cells.
What caught Prof Mallucci’s attention was the fact that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats bed down for their winter sleep.
About 20-30 percent of their synapses are destroyed as their bodies brace for a long, cold winter.
But when they awake in the spring, those connections undergo a renewal.
According to the scientists, this renewal repairs vital connections in the brain, delaying the progression of brain decline.
Prof Mallucci, who led the research, told the BBC the findings proved humans, just like hibernating animals, can produce the protein needed to delay the onset of dementia.
She made clear that the finding should not encourage people to plunge into cold water in a bid to stave off dementia.
Cold water immersion carries grave health risks that counter the possible benefits against brain decline.
It can cause hypothermia – a dangerous drop in body temperature below 35C (normal body temperature is around 37C).
“It’s a medical emergency that needs to be treated in hospital,” warns the NHS.
Rather, Prof Mallucci said the overarching aim is to find a drug that can trigger the production of this protein, which could protect the brain.