14 January 2022

Heart disease causes early brain dysfunction and can treble key Alzheimer’s protein

Heart disease can directly cause brain dysfunction early on which could lead to dementia and can treble the amount of an Alzheimer’s protein in the brain, say scientists.

atherosclerosis in brain
  • Scientists have discovered that heart disease causes brain dysfunction that could lead to dementia before the buildup of plaque in blood vessels of the brain
  • Heart disease causes problems in the brain that causes less blood to reach the neurons that need it 
  • Findings also show that a combination of heart disease and a key Alzheimer’s gene trebles the amount of an Alzheimer’s causing protein in the brain 

Heart disease can directly cause brain dysfunction early on which could lead to dementia and can treble the amount of an Alzheimer’s protein in the brain, say scientists. 

The new research, published in eLife, has found that heart disease causes a breakdown of a key brain function which links brain activity and blood flow, meaning the brain gets less blood for the same amount of activity. 

This is happening in heart disease patients before the build up of fat in the brain’s blood vessels (atherosclerosis) and is a prelude to dementia. Until now it has been unclear how some forms of vascular dementia can happen years before atherosclerosis in the brain. 

The researchers also discovered that the combination of heart disease and a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s Disease trebles the amount of beta-amyloid, a protein that builds up and triggers Alzheimer’s, and increases the levels of an inflammatory gene (IL1) in the brain. 

Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common form of dementia worldwide and heart disease is a major risk factor for both Alzheimer’s and dementia. The new findings are key to furthering our understanding of the links between heart disease and dementia. 

"We’ve discovered that heart disease in midlife causes the breakdown of neurovascular coupling, an important mechanism in our brains which controls the amount of blood supplied to our neurons. This breakdown means the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen when needed and in time this can lead to dementia.”

Dr Osman Shabir

Lead author of the study from the University of Sheffield’s Neuroscience and Healthy Lifespan Institutes

The team have since been awarded a three year grant by the British Heart Foundation to look at the use of an arthritis drug which targets IL1 to see if it could reverse or reduce the brain dysfunction seen to be caused by heart disease. 

The team also found that brain injuries can also worsen brain blood flow regulation, supporting observations that patients’ symptoms often worsen after injuries or falls.  



 

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.