Pitt study links symptoms like irritability, anxiety in Alzheimer’s patients to brain inflammation

PITTSBURGH — Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say brain inflammation is the root cause of common neuropsychiatric symptoms like anxiety and irritability in Alzheimer’s patients.

The findings from Pitt’s School of Medicine, published in the JAMA Network Open, strengthen the evidence of the role inflammation plays in the progression of the disease and offers new pathways to develop therapies for neurological symptoms.

“Neuropsychiatric symptoms such as irritability, agitation, anxiety and depression are among the most difficult symptoms to treat in patients with Alzheimer’s. They are difficult to control, have no clear cause and make it difficult for families to care for their loved one without lots of support,” said first author Cristiano Aguzzoli, M.D., postdoctoral associate at Pitt. “Here, we show for the first time that brain inflammation may be to blame for these symptoms.”

Pitt researchers previously found excessive brain inflammation is “critical for disease initiation” and can help predict if someone is at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s symptoms. The new findings are the first time strong evidence was found that brain inflammation is the direct cause of common neuropsychiatric symptoms associated with the disease.

In this study, researchers measured the levels of neuroinflammation, amyloid protiens and tau proteins via brain imaging of 109 elderly persons. Scientists found that levels of amyloid and tau alone were predictive of neuropsychiatric symptoms, but neuroinflammation seemed to have an added effect.

Researchers say the neuroinflammation was most strongly associated with caregivers reporting rapid mood swings of the individual with Alzheimer’s.

The study also suggests that targeting neuroinflammation could be a preventative therapy for Alzheimer’s and medications that target the inflammation could reduce the severity of symptoms.

“Since both neuroinflammation and neuropsychological abnormalities are found in several other types of dementia, including Parkinson’s dementia, we are collaborating with scientists around the world to expand these findings to these other diseases,” said senior author Tharick Pascoal, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Pitt.

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