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Ironing out the details of diabetes and dementia

Project summary

Type 2 diabetes is linked to a higher risk of dementia. Dr Fiona McLean wants to investigate whether a build-up of iron in the brain caused by high blood sugar levels could be responsible. By untangling these links, Dr McLean’s research could help scientists to develop urgently needed new treatments that can improve the lives of people with diabetes and reduce the risk of the devastating effects of dementia.

Background to research

People living with type 2 diabetes can be at a higher risk of developing dementia. At the moment we don’t fully understand why, but Dr Fiona McLean at the University of Dundee thinks that iron levels in the brain could play a part.  

In blood vessels in our brain, a group of cells forms a barrier between blood and nerve cells, known as the blood-brain barrier. These cells act like bouncers at a party, deciding what's let into the brain and what gets kicked out. Dr McLean has found that high blood sugar levels might be causing blood-brain barrier cells to go wrong, which could lead to a build-up of iron.  

Too much iron can be toxic for brain cells, and it’s linked to another toxic substance called amyloid. Amyloid builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, but little is currently known about exactly why this is.  

Research aims

Dr McLean will measure the amount of iron in brain blood vessels from mice with slightly raised blood sugar levels, mice with high blood sugar levels and mice without diabetes. This will tell her more about how sugar levels are linked with a build-up of iron in these vessels or in brain nerve cells. She’ll then run tests to check if the iron build up could be causing damage to cells in the brain. She’ll also measure amyloid levels to see if levels are increased in mice with higher sugar levels. 

Next, she’ll measure the levels of different hormones that are known to influence iron levels, including insulin, in blood samples from these mice. These measurements will tell her if changes in these hormones are linked with higher levels of iron in the brain in type 2 diabetes. 

Lastly, she’ll repeat these tests on brain blood vessels and brain nerve cells from people with diabetes to check all her discoveries are relevant to them. 

Potential benefit to people with diabetes

Dr McLean’s research could shine new light on the biology of Alzheimer’s disease and its links with type 2 diabetes. Insights from this project could lead to vital new treatments that reduce people’s risk of this devastating condition. 

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