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Could radiation have a role to play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease?

Researchers from the University of Southern Denmark are concerned that exposure to radiation could increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life. As more and more of us are exposed to ionising radiation, such as that from different forms of medical equipment, air travel and nuclear technologies, the thought that radiation could be a factor in the disease is rather worrying to say the least.

With the number of people with Alzheimer’s on the increase, it’s vital that investigations are carried out into the potential factors that have an impact on the disease. And, as the global prevalence of the disease is expected to rise over the next couple of decades, scientists are doing what they can to understand more.

The lead researcher in this study, Stefan J. Kempf, PhD, wanted to see if there was a connection between ionising radiation and cognitive impairment. Together with researchers from Italy, Germany, Denmark and Japan, he examined the effects of low doses of ionising radiation on the brain, and found that it did cause molecular changes to the brain, similar to those seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Almost one third of all diagnostic CT scans involve scanning the head. As the doses of radiation used are low, this kind of radiation alone is not serious cause for concern. However, as some people are likely to be exposed several times throughout their lifetime, this does raise some questions, particularly as not much is known about the accumulative effects of exposure to such radiation.

Furthermore, recent data has suggested that molecular changes that lead to cognitive impairment could be triggered by relatively low doses of radiation.

From this study, the researchers have been able to explain more about the molecular alterations seen in the hippocampus of mice which have been exposed to radiation. This area of the brain is responsible for learning and for the formation of memories. Using two kinds of ionising treatments, which were given daily for a period of 300 days, the researchers were able to bring about changes in the hippocampus, which were similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s patients. Analysis of the study data, led Kempf to believe that exposure to chronic low-dose radiation has an effect on the way in which new neurons integrate into existing synaptic wires.

Further research is now needed to understand more about the association between ionising radiation and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

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