4 ways researchers are working to fight dementia

1 in 3 people born in the UK this year will develop dementia in their lifetime, and the most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is a general term for an ongoing decline in brain functioning, which can include memory loss, and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Currently, there is no known cure and so researchers at the University of Oxford are trying to find treatments and even identify the early triggers to prevent people from getting dementia in the first place…

  1. Growing brain cells in a dish 
    1. Scientists understand that Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by faulty proteins called beta-amyloid and tau, which are constantly made by brain cells all throughout your life. Types of cell called ‘microglial cells’ are constantly on the look-out for protein clumps which they readily clean up. Unfortunately, in Alzheimer’s disease the microglia are unable to clean up all of the protein waste that is expelled from other cells. This can lead to nerve cell damage and weakened connections between them. The charity Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK) has established drug discovery research institutes to try to speed up the development of new treatments. One of these institutes is based in Oxford University and brings together different types of scientists. Firstly, biologists such as Dr Hazel Hall-Roberts create biological models of Alzheimer’s disease in the lab, such as microglia in a dish, and create ways to test specific properties of the model e.g. a test for the health of microglia. Secondly, chemists design and make experimental drugs, which the biologists add to their biological model and run the test.  There are many rounds of designing, making and testing, and many molecules fall by the wayside, but frontrunners emerge that have the desired effect, e.g. improving microglial health in a dish. Having shown that the approach is likely to succeed, the researchers at the University then hand the small molecules to pharmaceutical companies, who continue testing to turn the small molecules into drugs. Only the best small molecules will undergo safety testing and undergo clinical trials with patients. To learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFu4YxVwRGU
  2. Using apps and wearable technologies to identify risk factors
    1. Research has shown that damage in the brain can take place decades before symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease emerge. Dr Vanessa Raymont (Department of Psychiatry) works on The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study (DFP) which is collecting many different measures from people at risk of Alzheimer's disease. The study brings together the results from brain scans, cognitive and memory testing, (eye) retinal imaging and blood tests. The project also draws upon digital and wearable technologies (smartphone apps, Fitbit- like wristbands etc.) to collect data about the amount of exercise a person does, their movement, quality of sleep and memory performance after learning a new task. It’s hoped that in the future researchers will be able to refer to this database to see if early interventions are working. It may also inform ‘risk assessments’ and individual programmes to reduce the risk of patients developing dementia or delaying its onset. 
  3. Tracking the brain in its early stages of development
    1. Another key area of dementia research is vascular ageing. This refers to the process by which the walls of our arteries generally increase in stiffness and thickness as we age. Researchers are interested in learning more about whether this change in our bodies is related to our thought processes or mental health disorders such as depression. Furthermore, an increasing number of studies have shown that our experiences during sensitive periods of brain development may have long-term structural and functional changes in the brain. Dr Ruby Tsang (Department of Psychiatry) is studying to see if factors such as exposure to childhood stressful experiences and hardship (e.g. physical abuse, parental arguments, family financial problems) or the early onset of puberty could make some people more vulnerable to developing diseases such as dementia and mental health issues as adults. It’s hoped that these findings will be able to guide clinical practice and policy, resulting in better screening, as well as earlier diagnosis and intervention.
  4. Looking for complex patterns in big data
    1. Many people tend to primarily associate Alzheimer’s disease with a decline in memory function and an inability to think clearly but it is also a physical disease which causes damage to brain tissue and nerve connections. Dr Laura Winchester (Department of Psychiatry) is a bioinformatician which means that she uses her scientific knowledge and expertise in information technology to analyse big data sets. In her current research, she assesses patients’ genetic data and protein expression in the search for potential markers or disease-related genes that might offer an earlier sign of Alzheimer’s. We can also use real world data to try and understand what social, environmental or health variables could increase or decrease the risk of dementia. Risk factors from other diseases, such cardiovascular disease, could have an effect both directly on heart health and an impact on mental decline seen in dementia; understanding these factors could give us other approaches to Alzheimer’s treatment.