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What do we already know?

There is an increasing amount of evidence that the immune system plays a key role in the development or progression of Alzheimer's disease. Previous research has found that levels of a protein involved in the immune system - called TNFα - appears to be increased in people with Alzheimer's disease and is associated with problems in memory and thinking. 

Drugs that act to block the actions of TNFα, known as TNFα inhibitors, are already used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. These drugs include etanercept, adalimumab and infliximab. Evidence from small studies and analysis of clinical data indicates that people with rheumatoid arthritis who are taking these drugs could be at a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.

What does the project involve?

The researchers will carry out a comprehensive study on the effect of TNFα inhibitors on memory and thinking abilities. They will particularly focus on people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that in some cases can lead to Alzheimer's disease.

Dr McGuinness and her team will recruit people with rheumatoid arthritis from rheumatology day centres in Belfast, Antrim and Southampton. Those who are found to have MCI will be invited to take part in the study. The participants will then be visited by a specialist nurse who will test their memory and thinking abilities. The visits will take place every 6 months over an 18 month period.

The team will use their findings to compare the memory and thinking abilities of people taking TNFα inhibitors to those on other types of rheumatoid arthritis drugs. This will indicate whether the TNFα inhibitors have any effect on the risk of progression from MCI to Alzheimer's disease.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

If this study finds that people taking TNFα inhibitors appear to be at a reduced risk of dementia, this should pave the way for a clinical trial to further test the effects of these drugs.

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