A new study from University College London (UCL) has found that it may be possible to contract Alzheimer’s through medical operations.

The study found that “prions” – the type of protein that causes dementia are resistant to standard procedures of medical sterilisation and can stick to metal objects, such as medical instruments and surgical devices. This means that it is theoretically possible for these proteins to be transmitted during particular medical operations including blood transfusions, root canal treatments and brain surgery.

Alzheimer’s has an incubation period of up to 40 years, meaning those who have potentially been affected by this may not be made aware for a significant amount of time afterwards.
 

Should We Be Worried?

 
Despite the recent study, the Department of Health is reassuring the public that there is little risk of contamination. The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies is keen to stress that rigorous cleanliness and sterilisation procedures are in place universally across the NHS in order to provide patients with the greatest level of protection.

The research conducted by UCL states that there is no evidence to suggest that Alzheimer’s can be transmitted to humans or by any medical procedure. The research comprised a very small sample, which scientists came across by accident when examining the brains of eight people who contracted CJD and subsequently died – the human form of mad cow disease.

Four of the brains contained large deposits of amyloid beta protein – a protein that affects the brain cells affecting a human’s ability to effectively communicate and common to patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Smaller amounts were found in three other brains causing scientists to speculate that had they lived longer, they were probably likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Scientists believe that the changes in the samples brains are most likely the result of contaminated medical devices and not CJD, as a further 116 brains of those infected with CJD were examined and found to contain no traces of the protein.

Scientists are describing the new findings as a “paradigm shift” as potentially this could alter the way in which scientists view the way in which Alzheimer’s develops in humans:

 

“What we need to consider is that in addition to there being sporadic Alzheimer’s disease and inherited or familial Alzheimer’s disease, there could also be acquired forms of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Lead scientist Professor John Collinge, director of the Medical Research Council Prion Unit at UCL.

 

Previous experiments on whether the transmission of Alzheimer’s is possible has been conducted on mice and monkeys. Scientists injected liquefied brain tissue from deceased Alzheimer’s patients into the animals nervous systems and observed changes synonymous with Alzheimer’s patients.
 

What Do These Findings Mean?

 
Scientists are currently debating whether the potential for an acquired form of Alzheimer’s disease should be made a research priority. They are also keen to allay fears that Alzheimer’s is in no way contagious.

These new findings are timely as September is World Alzheimer’s Month – a month long campaign dedicated to raising awareness and combatting the stigma surrounding the illness. For more information, and to find out how you can get involved, please visit our blog.