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Lewy Body Dementia Brought into The Spotlight

Lewy body dementia has been brought to our attention again this month as it’s the anniversary of the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams. While depression was thought to be the cause of his death, his widow has stated that the debilitating brain disease, Lewy body dementia (LBD) was to blame. The disease was only found during his autopsy, and was one of the most severe cases the doctors had ever seen.

LBD was first discovered at the beginning of the 20th century when neurologist Dr. Freiderich H Lewy found tiny deposits of a protein in the brain cells, now known as Lewy bodies. It’s the second most common form of progressive dementia and yet is the most misdiagnosed, taking an average of 18 months to diagnose correctly. This is probably due to the fact that the symptoms are very similar to those of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s.

As the symptoms can be very similar to those experienced with Parkinson’s, researchers believe that both conditions may be triggered by the way in which the brain processes the protein alpha-synuclein.

While Lewy bodies are found in both Parkinson’s and LBD, they tend to occur in different parts of the brain. While fairly localised in the substantia nigra region in Parkinson’s sufferers, they are spread throughout the cerebral cortex in people with LBD. So far, scientists don’t know how Lewy bodies develop, although they have been linked to a reduction in the levels of neurotransmitters, damage to nerve cells and brain tissue loss. Symptoms include problems with memory and thinking, with some people also experiencing movement problems. As the symptoms can be very similar to those experienced with Parkinson’s, researchers believe that both conditions may be triggered by the way in which the brain processes the protein alpha-synuclein.

The symptoms of LBD can vary, although attention and alertness issues are very common. Patients with LBD may also experience memory loss and visual and auditory hallucinations. Almost two thirds will experience some kind of movement problems, including tremors, rigidity of the muscles and difficulty walking. Furthermore, sleep disorders are common, along with changes in blood pressure, temperature and bowel function. Anxiety, depression and other behavioural changes are also common.

As there is no test for LBD, diagnosis is made by clinical evaluation. However, as many medical professionals don’t have any experience of LBD, it often takes a while to be diagnosed. At present, only an autopsy can give a definite LBD diagnosis.

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