Dementia service providers explore developments in diagnosis and treatment

  • 11th April 2024

Providers of dementia services in health and social care from across the region joined the Dementia HIT Providers’ Forum on 25 March to identify opportunities, impacts and challenges of new developments in diagnosing and treating dementia.

The Dementia HIT Providers Forum is supported by Bristol Health Partners’ Dementia Health Integration Team (HIT). The HIT helps develop services for people living with dementia through research, integrating and improving services and support, and expanding dementia-friendly communities. It works in partnership across Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire with people living with dementia, universities, councils, NHS trusts, NHS managers, voluntary sector organisations and charities.

The event was an opportunity to share research and developments with key people who work in the system, to prepare for potential changes in how dementia services are provided as a result of these innovations.

Clinicians and researchers presented two breakthroughs in dementia diagnosis and treatment. The group then discussed the possibilities and implications of these breakthroughs, including building knowledge in communities, managing patient expectations and how the cost of new treatments might impact on the funding of care.

Test for early diagnosis

A person is typically diagnosed with dementia up to 20 years after the disease has first begun. They could be treated more effectively and the UK could save £3 billion a year if it could be diagnosed earlier.

‘Fastball’, developed by Dr George Stothart and his team at the Universities of Bath and Bristol and tested at Southmead Hospital, is a passive, completely non-invasive test which measures patients’ brain waves whilst they watch a series of flashing images displayed on a screen. The technology requires users to wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, which is linked to a computer for analysis.

Research has shown Fastball to be highly effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves which occur when a person remembers an image. It has shown that this response changes as a person develops dementia, offering hope as a breakthrough for early diagnosis.

Disease-modifying treatments

Alzheimer’s disease causes the cells in the brain to get sick and eventually die, which leads to symptoms like memory loss. Existing drugs only treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. They do not treat the root cause of the disease and so do not slow down how quickly it gets worse.

To treat Alzheimer’s disease, we need to find effective drugs that are able to slow down or stop it. These drugs are called ‘disease-modifying’ treatments. At present, there are no disease-modifying treatments available in the UK for any type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Two disease modifying drugs – lecanemab and donanemab, which target amyloid in the brain – have been shown in clinical trials to be effective at slowing Alzheimer’s progression.

For any drug to become available in the UK, it must be approved by the MHRA.  For a drug to be available on the NHS, it would also need to be approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

The development of the disease-modifying drugs represents exciting steps in progressing new treatments to slow down and stop the diseases that cause dementia. More research is needed to improve upon these drugs to make better treatments to slow down or stop Alzheimer’s disease completely.