Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of progressive conditions that affect the brain, impacting 50 million people worldwide. Dementia damages the nerve cells in the brain so messages cannot be sent effectively, which prevents the brain from functioning normally. There are over 200 subtypes and causes of dementia, but the four most common are: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. Dementia can affect a person at any age, but it is more commonly diagnosed in people over the age of 65 years and the UK has an ageing population. The symptoms of dementia can include: memory problems, disrupted cognitive ability (processing information), difficulties with communication, changes in mood and behaviour.
Dementia research has made phenomenal advances over the last couple of decades, with many of the major discoveries made by researchers at Cambridge, some of which are described here. In Alzheimer’s disease, work done in Cambridge was the first to show that the microtubule-associated protein tau is the major component of the filaments that form the neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer’s disease and other tauopathies. Cambridge neuroscientists also discovered that alpha synuclein is the major component of Lewy bodies, the characteristic aggregates of Parkinson’s disease. The link between tau and neurodegeneration was established in Cambridge, with the identification of one of the first genetic mutations in the tau gene as the cause of some familial forms of frontotemporal dementia. Furthermore, Cambridge scientists were part of the collaborative team that discovered the Huntington’s disease gene, have characterised the nature of cognitive dysfunction in Huntington’s disease and were among the first to identify specific changes in presymptomatic cases, devising a battery of tests to assess cognitive decline that is now used worldwide. Moreover, Cambridge neuropsychologists also invented a cognitive test that predicts the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease in patients with mild cognitive impairment. We have more than 150 researchers working in dementia research across Cambridge in a range of Departments and across all of our themes. Our research spans genetic, molecular and cellular models of neurodegeneration through to the characterisation of human pathophysiology of dementia, to early phase clinical trials.
Our success is built on the effective integration of preclinical and clinical research programmes with major specialist NHS services, and includes strategic partnerships, the UK Dementia Research Institute (brings together diverse expertise – from biological to physical sciences – to boost our understanding of the earliest stages of neurodegeneration), the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (a research institute dedicated to the understanding of important biological processes at the levels of atoms, molecules, cells and organisms, providing knowledge needed to solve key problems in human health), the ALBORADA Drug Discovery Institute (couples disease knowledge and biology expertise of academic community with high quality, innovative drug discovery technologies), the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre, the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre (a major research facility in the University of Cambridge, dedicated to bringing the latest imaging research imaging protocols to both cognitive and clinical research). Furthermore, there already exists many very successful interdisciplinary research projects in Cambridge in this area, which include, but are not limited to The NIMROD study (Neuroimaging of Inflammation in Memory and Other Disorders, an exciting and important study about the role of inflammation in dementia and related disorders), the CamCAN study (The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience, a large scale collaborative project that uses epidemiological, cognitive and neuroimaging data to understand how individuals can best retain cognitive abilities into old age) and the Cambridge Centre for Parkinson Plus
A key component to the success of neurodegenerative brain research in Cambridge is the multidisciplinary nature of the academic interactions. Neurologists, neuropsychologists, neuropsychiatrists, neurosurgeons, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, physicists, chemists, biochemists and pharmacologists all collaborate with the communal aim of understanding these diseases and identifying new treatments. You can watch a short film on this interdisciplinary approach taken by members of Cambridge Neuroscience in Catching The Memory Thief (filmed in 2016).
Further support would be profoundly useful in many different areas which include:
- Developing our interdisciplinary research programmes in dementia research.
- Funding an Interdisciplinary Research Fellowship scheme.
- Funding specific postgraduate programmes in dementia research (PhD and Masters level).