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Mind before matter: do negative thoughts increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

November 19, 2014
Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London have proposed that repetitive negative thinking (RNT), a common symptom of many psychological disorders, may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Until recently, research into Alzheimer’s disease has focused on how physical factors are linked to the onset of symptoms. However, scientists at the IoPPN suggest that there are psychological factors that make a person more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease; and that these factors occur before any physical indicators of the disease emerge.

In an article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers argue that a habit of negative thinking over a prolonged period of time (RNT) can have a harmful effect on the brain’s capacity to think, reason and form memories.  RNT is a common behaviour in people suffering from depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and life stress; which are themselves associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s. RNT can occur without us being consciously aware of it and consumes our finite capacity of brain resources. Importantly, RNT also triggers a physical stress response in the brain, which over a prolonged period of time may cause damage and reduce the brain’s resilience to Alzheimer’s disease.

Genetics has been shown to play a role in Alzheimer’s disease and people with a particular variant of a gene known as APOE e4 have increased risk of Alzheimer’s. However, not everyone who has this gene variant will get Alzheimer’s, which suggests that other influences may be involved. Previous research has shown that people who possess this gene variant and who suffer from psychological disorders such as depression are at an even higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry and Psychopathology at the IoPPN, says: “Treatments that reduce RNT exist, and we believe that they may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Further research is needed to verify this concept however our new proposal offers a promising line of scientific investigation to reduce the heavy societal burden posed by Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr Natalie Marchant, Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry at the IoPPN, King’s College London, says: “We propose that the way that we think may impact our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.  If future research supports this hypothesis this would have implications for the treatment of the disease through psychological interventions.”

Paper reference: Natalie L. Marchant and Robert J. Howard “Cognitive Debt and Alzheimer’s Disease” published in Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, DOI 10.3233/JAD-141515, October 2014

For further information, please contact Dr Claire Hastings, Press Officer (IoPPN) 0044 207 848 5377

About King’s College London (

King’s College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2013/14 QS World University Rankings) and the fourth oldest in England. It is The Sunday Times ‘Best University for Graduate Employment 2012/13’. King’s has nearly 26,000 students (of whom more than 10,600 are graduate students) from some 140 countries worldwide, and more than 7,000 staff. The College is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

King’s has an outstanding reputation for providing world-class teaching and cutting-edge research. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise for British universities, 23 departments were ranked in the top quartile of British universities; over half of our academic staff work in departments that are in the top 10 per cent in the UK in their field and can thus be classed as world leading. The College is in the top seven UK universities for research earnings and has an overall annual income of nearly £590 million.

King’s has a particularly distinguished reputation in the humanities, law, the sciences (including a wide range of health areas such as psychiatry, medicine, nursing and dentistry) and social sciences including international affairs. It has played a major role in many of the advances that have shaped modern life, such as the discovery of the structure of DNA and research that led to the development of radio, television, mobile phones and radar.

King’s College London and Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College Hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trusts are part of King’s Health Partners. King’s Health Partners Academic Health Sciences Centre (AHSC) is a pioneering global collaboration between one of the world’s leading research-led universities and three of London’s most successful NHS Foundation Trusts, including leading teaching hospitals and comprehensive mental health services. For more information, visit:

King’s fundraising campaign  – World questions|King’s answers – created to address some of the most pressing challenges facing humanity has reached its £500 million target 18 months ahead of schedule. The College is now aiming to build on this success and raise a further £100 million by the end of 2015, to fund vital research, deliver innovative new treatments and to support scholarships. The campaign’s five priority areas are neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power and children’s health. More information about the campaign is available at