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Parkinson’s drug shown to slow ALS progression in clinical trial

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An early clinical trial has shown that the Parkinson’s drug ropinirole is safe to use in patients with the fatal motor neurone disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and delayed disease progression by an average of 27.9 weeks.

ALS causes people to gradually lose control of their muscles and while the disease can strike at any time of life, symptoms most commonly develop between the ages of 55 and 75. Men are more likely to develop ALS than women.

There is currently no cure for ALS – which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease – with available treatments focussing on reducing symptoms and providing supportive care.

Researchers at Keio University School of Medicine in Japan have reported their findings in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Senior author and physiologist Hideyuki Okano of the Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo, said: “ALS is totally incurable, and it’s a very difficult disease to treat.

“We previously identified ropinirole as a potential anti-ALS drug in vitro by iPSC (Induced pluripotent stem cells) drug discovery, and with this trial, we have shown that it is safe to use in ALS patients and that it potentially has some therapeutic effect, but to confirm its effectiveness we need more studies, and we are now planning a phase 3 trial for the near future.”

To test ropinirole’s safety and effectiveness in sufferers with sporadic (non-familial) ALS, the team recruited 20 patients receiving care at Keio University Hospital. None of the patients carried genes predisposing them to the disease, and, on average, they had been living with ALS for 20 months.

The trial was double blinded for the first 24 weeks, meaning that the patients and doctors did not know who was receiving ropinirole and who was being given a placebo.

Then, for the following 24 weeks, all patients who wished to continue were knowingly administered ropinirole.

Many patients dropped out along the way – partially due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This meant only seven out of 13 ropinirole-treated and one out of seven placebo-followed-by-ropinirole-treated patients were monitored for the full year.

However, no patients dropped out due to safety reasons.

To determine whether the drug was effective at slowing the progression of ALS, the team monitored a variety of different measures throughout the trial and for four weeks after treatment finished.

These included changes in the patients’ self-reported physical activity and ability to eat and drink independently, and data from wearable devices and physician-measured changes in mobility, muscle strength, and lung function.

First author Satoru Morimoto, a neurologist at the Keio University School of Medicine, said: “We found that ropinirole is safe and tolerable for ALS patients and shows therapeutic promise at helping them sustain daily activity and muscle strength.”

Patients who received ropinirole during both phases of the trial were more physically active than patients in the placebo group. They also showed slower rates of decline in mobility, muscle strength, and lung function, and they were more likely to survive.

The benefits of ropinirole relative to the placebo became increasingly pronounced as the trial progressed.

However, placebo group patients who began taking ropinirole halfway through the trial did not experience these improvements. The researchers said it suggests that ropinirole treatment may only be useful if it’s started earlier and administered over a longer duration.

Dr Morimoto said: “We found a very striking correlation between a patient’s clinical response and the response of their motor neurons in vitro. Patients whose motor neurons responded robustly to ropinirole in vitro had a much slower clinical disease progression with ropinirole treatment, while suboptimal responders showed much more rapid disease progression despite taking ropinirole.”

It’s unclear why some patients are more responsive to ropinirole than others, but the researchers think this is probably due to genetic differences it’s hoped will be pinpointed in future  studies.

The researchers findings have met with a mixed response from neurological experts and others working in the field of motor neurone disease.

Michael Swash, professor of Neurology at Barts and the London School of Medicine in the UK, said the Keio report was of interest. “There has long been an effort to find an ‘off the shelf medication’ applicable to ALS management. Ropinirole may be one such drug.

“But there needs to be a clearer understanding of its mechanism of action in order to apply such knowledge more widely. In addition, a larger study is required to understand who might benefit and what might be the limits of practical therapy in using ropinirole in ALS.

“More data on possible unwanted effects are also required. There are interesting parallels in proteinaceous accumulation in the neuronal cytosol between PD and ALS that should be explored.”

Dr Brian Dickie, director of research at the MND (Motor Neurone Disease) Association, added:Whilst these results may be of some interest to the research community, the clinical trial is far too small and the findings too preliminary to draw any valid conclusions.”

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On a mission to show that hearing loss is not inevitable

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The world’s largest investigation into the effectiveness of hearing training kicks off this week – as part of a movement to prove that hearing loss is not an inevitable part of ageing.

The research project aims to attract a minimum of 10,000 participants to better understand how hearing training impacts auditory processing skills like speech comprehension and the ability to locate where sounds are coming from.

Researchers are interested in the impact of hearing training on users who start training with different hearing ability levels, as well as training adherence in groups with different attitudes to smartphone technology.

Their aim is to find new ways to deliver and improve auditory training at scale and for a wider range of hearing skills; and to measure factors which influence training engagement.

The research is led by health tech firm Eargym. Co-founder Andy Shanks says:  Contrary to popular belief, hearing loss is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. We can take steps to improve and protect our hearing throughout our lives, yet preventative measures like hearing training have traditionally been under-researched.

“Our data shows the transformative impact hearing training can have on our ability to process sounds. Now, we want to deepen and widen our research and use our platform to make hearing training even more effective and accessible. Imagine improving and maintaining your hearing by up to 20% or more: it could make a big difference to the lives of so many people.”

The games on the Eargym app include a “busy barista” exercise, where users must discern speech over a cafe’s bustling background noise; and a “sound seeking” exercise, where users make their way through forests, jungles and oceans to locate the sources of different sounds. Each game is designed to be immersive and to help users practise specific auditory processing skills regularly.

Eargym was set up by former NHS CEO Amanda Philpott and DJ Andy Shanks in 2020, after they were both diagnosed with hearing loss. Amanda has moderate age related hearing loss, whilst Andy has “notch” or noise-induced hearing loss due to DJ-ing. Both found hearing loss isolating and it impacted their ability to socialise and communicate. They created eargym to empower others to better understand their hearing health and take proactive steps to protect it.

Hearing loss currently affects 18 million adults in the UK, with around one billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss due to increased use of headphones. Hearing loss is closely associated with increased dementia risk. Despite this, people wait an average ten years before seeking help for hearing loss.

Eargym plans to publish the findings of its research in early 2025.

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Interview: Exploring electrical stimulation for Parkinson’s disease

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The STEPS II study is investigating functional electrical stimulation (FES) in people with Parkinson’s disease to help improve their walking. Dr Paul Taylor, co-founder and Clinical Director of Odstock Medical Ltd (OML), spoke to Agetech World to tell us more.

Bradykinesia – slowness of movement which can lead to difficulty walking – affects many people living with Parkinson’s disease. The symptom can cause Parkinson’s patients to walk or move slowly, increasing the risk of falls, leading to a reduced quality of life and an increased dependence on others. 

Funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research, sponsored by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, and managed by the University of Plymouth’s Peninsula Clinical Trials Unit, the STEPS II study is exploring the use of an FES device in Parkinson’s patients to help improve bradykinesia. 

The FES device, which has been pioneered by Salisbury researchers as a drop foot treatment for stroke and MS patients, is attached to the patient’s leg and produces small electrical impulses that improve movement.

“If you have Bradykinesia you’re moving slowly. The predominant treatment for Parkinson’s is medication and these can be very effective, but they have the problem of not working all the time,” explains Taylor, co-founder of Odstock Medical Ltd, a company owned by Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

”The effects of the drugs will wear off and after a period of time they become less effective, so, there’s a need for improvement.”

Taylor explains that deep brain stimulators are currently available, however, they are very invasive, expensive and can be risky. 

“We’re trying to do something which is a bit simpler and cheaper, which may possibly be able to help people at an earlier stage of Parkinson’s,” Taylor says.

“We’re stimulating the common peroneal nerve, which is the nerve that goes down the leg to the muscles, using a device called a drop foot stimulator. The device is commonly used for stroke and multiple sclerosis.”

A small feasibility study has already been conducted, which showed that FES can help patients walk faster and reduce some symptoms of Parkinson’s. 

In the STEPS II study, researchers hope to confirm the long-term effects of FES on walking speed and daily life with 234 participants at sites across Salisbury, Birmingham, Prestwick, Leeds, Swansea and Carlisle.

Taylor continues: “Our original idea was that we could use electrical stimulation to overcome freezing – which is the effect where people with Parkinson’s will stop walking, particularly when they come to doorways or very narrow areas. It’s to do with the processing of information from the outside world. 

“We wanted to see if we could use electrical stimulation to overcome that freezing and, to a certain extent, we did find that is the case for some patients, but more commonly and with a greater number of patients FES affected bradykinesia – speeding up their movement and helping with more effective walking.”

For the STEPS II study, participants will be randomised into a care as normal group, or a care as normal plus FES group. They will use the stimulator if they are in the FES group for 18 weeks, then the stimulator is taken away, with patients followed up one month later to see if the effects are continued.

Measurements of walking speed and movement will be analysed, along with sensory perception, balance, coordination, muscle strength, as well as secondary effects such as how the device impacts daily living and quality of life.

OML has established clinics around the country with trained therapists where the device will be used if the study is successful. 

“There’s a network of clinics already experienced in using the treatment so we plan to reach those clinics to include Parkinson’s patients in their cohorts,” says Taylor. “Then we’ll work with our contacts to see if we can get it overseas as well.”

OML is currently recruiting participants for the study, to find out more please visit: https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/penctu/steps-2 

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Quit Googling to stave off dementia onset, expert urges

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Resisting the temptation to search the web for information that could otherwise be recalled be exercising your brain could help to reduce the risk of dementia.

That is according to Canadian academic Professor Mohamed I. Elmasry who believes simple daily habits such as afternoon naps, memory ‘workouts’ and not reaching for a smartphone can increase the odds of healthy aging.

His new book, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence, says the focus has shifted too far away from RI (natural, or real) intelligence in favour of AI (machine, or artificial) intelligence. Elmasry instead calls us to nurture our human mind which, like smartphones, has ‘hardware’, ‘software’ and ‘apps’ but is many times more powerful – and will last much longer with the right care.

Professor Elmasry, an internationally recognised expert in microchip design and AI, was inspired to write the book after the death of his brother-in-law from Alzheimer’s and others very close to him, including his mother, from other forms of dementia.

Although he says that smart devices are ‘getting smarter all the time’, he argues in iMind that none comes close to ‘duplicating the capacity, storage, longevity, energy efficiency, or self-healing capabilities of the original human brain-mind’.

He writes that: “The useful life expectancy for current smartphones is around 10 years, while a healthy brain-mind inside a healthy human body can live for 100 years or longer.

“Your brain-mind is the highest-value asset you have, or will ever have. Increase its potential and longevity by caring for it early in life, keeping it and your body healthy so it can continue to develop.

“Humans can intentionally develop and test their memories by playing ‘brain games,’ or performing daily brain exercises. You can’t exercise your smartphone’s memory to make it last longer or encourage it to perform at a higher level.”

In iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence Professor Elmasry shares an anecdote about his grandchildren having to use the search engine on their smartphones to name Cuba’s capital—they had just spent a week in the country with their parents.

The story illustrates how young people have come to rely on AI smartphone apps instead of using their real intelligence (RI), he says, adding: “A healthy memory goes hand-in-hand with real intelligence. Our memory simply can’t reach its full potential without RI.”

Published by Routledge, iMind: Artificial and Real Intelligence includes extensive background on the history of microchip design, machine learning and AI and their role in smartphones and other technology.

The book also explains how both AI and human intelligence really work, and how brain function links the mind and memory. It compares the human mind and brain function with that of smartphones, ChatGPT and other AI-based systems.

Drawing on comprehensive existing research, iMind aims to narrow the knowledge gap between real and artificial intelligence, to address the current controversy around AI, and to inspire researchers to find new treatments for Alzheimer’s, other neurodegenerative conditions and cancer.

It argues that current or even planned AI cannot match the capabilities of the human brain-mind for speed, accuracy, storage capacity and other functions. Healthy aging, Professor Elmasry notes, is as important as climate change but doesn’t attract a fraction of the publicity.

He calls for policymakers to adopt a series of key reforms to promote healthy aging. Among such changes, he suggests that bingo halls could transition from their sedentary entertainment function to become active and stimulating learning centers.

As well as napping to refresh our memories and other brain and body functions, he also outlines a series of practical tips to boost brain power and enhance our RI (Real Intelligence).

These include building up ‘associative’ memory – the brain’s ‘dictionary of meaning’ where it attaches new information to what it already knows. Try reading a book aloud, using all of your senses instead of going on autopilot and turning daily encounters into fully-lived experiences.

Other techniques include integrating a day for true rest into the week, reviewing your lifestyle as early as your 20s or 30s, adopting a healthy diet, and eliminating or radically moderating alcohol consumption to reduce the risk of dementia.

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