What is dementia with Lewy bodies?

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is part of a wider condition known as Lewy body disease. Lewy body disease has different symptoms depending on the age at which they first appear.

Someone aged 50-60 with Lewy bodies in the brain is more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, a related condition that involves problems with movement.

Someone aged 70-80 is more likely to develop dementia with Lewy bodies, as a different part of the brain will be affected, and will result in different symptoms, though with some overlap in the physical problems characteristic of Parkinson’s. Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB) is the second most common cause of neurodegenerative dementia in older people (10-15% of all cases). It was only fully recognised in the 1990s as a result of improved neuro-pathological staining which allowed Lewy bodies to be seen in autopsy brain tissue.

In the last 15 years, we have seen a huge growth in research and understanding into DLB. The majority of research to date has been to describe the condition according to its clinical features. We now have standard criteria that can be used by clinicians across the world to diagnose DLB. This not only assists patient management but means that we can now perform clinical trials of new treatments and conduct research into the causes of DLB. In the last few years we have learned that Lewy bodies are probably an attempt by nerve cells to protect themselves, the Lewy bodies representing safe houses where abnormal and potentially toxic proteins can be placed. The main culprit protein in Lewy body disorders is thought to be alpha-synuclein which has a function in the release of neuro-transmitters from one nerve cell to the next.

Though DLB is not usually an inherited disorder, some genes bring increased risk. Genes can help us to understand the mechanisms of the disease, so research at Newcastle University is looking into the genetic risk factors of DLB.

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