Inflamed brain targeted in £100,000 Edinburgh study

Posted on 1st October 2015

Work gets underway this month at the University of Edinburgh, as part of a £100,000 study to learn more about the causes vascular dementia – the second biggest form of dementia in the UK.

The three year PhD project, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, will seek to untangle the role the immune system plays in the development of vascular dementia, a vital step in the road towards uncovering new ways to tackle the disease.

‘What’s good for your heart is good for your head’ – a phrase often used when discussing risk factors for dementia, highlights the importance of a healthy blood supply to the brain to maintain memory and thinking skills. Vascular dementia is caused by reductions in blood flow to the brain, but the biology underpinning the condition is poorly understood. This means targets for drugs to help those affected remain elusive.

Dr Barry McColl along with collaborator Prof Karen Horsburgh and their new PhD student, Stefan Szymkowiak, want to understand the inflammatory response to reduced brain blood flow. They are particularly interested in a protein called TREM2, which regulates the brain’s unique immune response to damage. When TREM2 doesn’t work properly, the brain’s immune response goes awry, causing more harm than good. Through this project, the team aims to unravel the role TREM2 plays in the interplay between disrupted blood flow and memory and thinking difficulties.  Importantly, this research will reveal tangible biological processes that could be targeted to maintain healthy nerve cells in the face of disrupted blood flow.

Dr McColl from The Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, said:

“Changes in blood flow to the brain can lead to problems with brain function, including glitches in nerve cell communication. We know that as we age, blood flow to the brain reduces, with damaging consequences for nerve cell health and a knock-on effect on memory and thinking skills. With this new funding, our team will zero in on the inflammatory cascade of events ignited by poor blood flow, with the hope of boosting our understanding of vascular dementia and highlighting possible approaches to halt nerve cell damage.”

Dr Emma O’Brien from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Dementia is a heart-breaking condition and one that affects over 6000 families in Edinburgh city alone. Yet research does not receive the investment and resources desperately needed to halt the brain diseases that cause dementia. This new funding will not only boost dementia research capacity, but will enable the team to delve into an often overlooked area of dementia research. While there has been a flurry of activity in recent years to investigate the brain’s immune system in Alzheimer’s disease, less is known about this process in vascular dementia. Through investing in young scientific talent, novel expertise and pioneering research, Alzheimer’s Research UK will find a way to tackle our greatest medical challenge head on.”

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