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Aussie researchers solve the 2,500-year-old mystery of delirium

Australian researchers claim to have made a breakthrough in identifying the cause of delirium, a brain condition that his puzzled scientists for 2,500 years.

Associate Professor Gideon Caplan and a team of researchers from the Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick, NSW published their findings in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism in March.

Caplan told ABC News that by using Positron Emissions Tomography (PET) scans, his team identified abnormal glucose metabolism in the brain as the leading cause of delirium.

“In 10 years of delirium research at Prince of Wales, we have found the answer to a 2,500-year-old mystery — what is happening in the brain during delirium,” he said. “This breakthrough now informs us as to where to aim our therapeutic interventions to treat, and hopefully to beat delirium.”

According to the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care, about 10 percent of Australians aged over 70 years have delirium at the time of admission to hospital, and a further 8 percent developed it during a hospital admission.

The Commission states that delirium is characterised by a disturbance of consciousness, attention, cognition and perception that develops over a short period of time.

People with delirium have a higher risk of falls and a greater chance of developing dementia or ending up in higher-dependency care.

Although delirium is common, it is often poorly diagnosed, with cases missed by healthcare workers.

PET scans, which use a special dye to monitor the brain and body, allowed researchers to discover changes in the part of the brain governing memory and executive function. The researchers concluded that when the brain was unable to metabolise glucose efficiently, brain function deteriorated, causing delirium.

Speaking to ABC News, Caplan said that the findings were extremely important, “Delirium accelerates the progression of dementia, so if we could treat delirium, we could potentially prevent dementia in some patients.”

It’s still early days for this research, but the researchers are already looking at possible treatments.

Doctors at Prince of Wales Hospital plan to trial delivering insulin, which is used to treat diabetes, through the nose and directly into patients’ brains. It is thought that the increase in glucose uptake will help to kerb or even cure delirium.

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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