Our progress

Since we funded our first research project in 1998, our researchers have been making huge advances in understanding the diseases that cause dementia.

This is crucial if we are to develop diagnostics, treatments and preventions to help people with dementia.

Here are just some of the amazing progress that has been made thanks to your generous support.

Causes and risk factors

Our scientists are uncovering crucial biological changes happening in the brain in dementia. We’ve made huge strides in understanding the hallmark dementia protein tau. This includes funding Prof Michel Goedert and Prof Maria Grazia Spillantini at the University of Cambridge – world-leading experts in tau – and through a Research Fellowship to Dr Amy Pooler who discovered vital clues to how the culprit tau protein spreads from cell to cell. The impact of their work is being felt by researchers across the world and is taking us closer to developing approaches to stop the protein’s abnormal behaviour, keeping nerve cells healthier for longer.

Over the past decade, our funding helped in the discovery of 21 genes linked to an altered risk of Alzheimer’s. Thanks to these landmark discoveries, researchers now believe they understand the genetic changes responsible for over half of our genetic risk of the disease. By understanding what these genes do, researchers have now linked new biological processes to the disease. You can read on our blog how the discovery of a gene linked to inflammation has sparked an important new avenue of investigation in the search for new treatments.

We’ve supported the development of crucial resources and technologies, including the Alzheimer’s Research UK DNA Bank which has over 4,000 DNA samples from people with and without dementia. By joining forces with a team in the US this is now one of the largest collections of Alzheimer’s DNA samples in the world – a resource made available to researchers across the UK and beyond. Researchers at the University of Manchester have formed an international consortium of over 30 research groups across the world and we are funding the largest and most comprehensive genetic study of people with FTD ever undertaken.

By supporting researchers who are following large groups of people over time, such as the Aberdeen Birth Cohorts, we’ve helped explore the relationship between early life factors such as childhood nutrition and IQ to dementia risk later in life. Research we funded at the University of Cambridge revealed that over 65s who had a better education, a more complex job in mid-life and greater social engagement later in life had a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Treatment and prevention

Our scientists were among the first to use state-of-the-art stem cell techniques to study Alzheimer’s disease in the laboratory. This transformational technology is now changing how scientists across the world can study diseases like Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia. These discoveries inspired the launch of our Stem Cell Research Centre, which will now build on this progress to screen potential new dementia drugs.

With our support, scientists at the University of Ulster found that the diabetes drug Liraglutide was able to boost the production of new nerve cells and counteract damage in mice with features of Alzheimer’s. This important early work led them to start a clinical trial with liraglutide in people with Alzheimer’s.

In 2009, we supported a clinical trial that highlighted the dangers of long-term antipsychotic use in people with dementia. This finding kick-started a national campaign to reduce their use and ensure they are prescribed appropriately. To date, use of antipsychotics for people in the UK with dementia has fallen by more than 52%.

A team of researchers at the University of Southampton followed up on a failed clinical trial using a treatment designed to clear the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein amyloid from the brain. Their landmark research paper in Lancet showed that the protein was cleared from the brain despite showing no benefit to patients, provoking major discussions in the field and helping to refine current approaches to drug development. Their findings have been used to urge the need for current clinical trials to be tested in people at a very early stage of the disease. You can read more about this on our blog.

In 2014, we launched our Global Clinical Trials Fund to support early-stage clinical trials to test new dementia treatments in people – a vital step towards putting new treatments into the hands of those who need them.

We helped to develop and launch ‘Join dementia research’, a national system that allows the public to register their interest in taking part in research studies. By helping people match to studies in their area, we’re making sure that there are no barriers to research and that everyone has the best change of benefitting from the research we are funding.

Diagnosis

As part of his Clinical Research Fellowship, Dr George Pengas helped to design a new memory test to aid diagnosis of dementia.  The results showed their test to be an accurate and valid tool for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.  Many clinicians are now comparing the TYM test to current memory and thinking tests, to investigate its potential for use in the clinic.

Our support has helped researchers at University College London and the University of Manchester better characterise the changes that affect someone with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Their research has led to the characterisation of language-specific forms of the disease and helped to develop more sensitive diagnostic tests to assess symptoms such as lack of empathy. By uncovering how key changes in the brain in this disease correlate with clinical symptoms, people with FTD can now understand more about their condition and be given the chance to get involved in research at an earlier stage.

Our funding led Prof Simon Lovestone and his team at King’s College London to discover a panel of ten proteins in blood that could predict which people with early memory problems are most likely to go on to develop Alzheimer’s. As well as helping to understand early changes in the disease, the team are now working to develop the panel into a test that could be used to identify people who could be involved in research at a time when they’re most likely to benefit.

Researchers we’re supporting at UCL’s Institute of Neurology are leading the way in research into posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), a rare visual form of dementia. They’ve used eye-tracking equipment to reveal that people with PCA aren’t able to scan their visual field as thoroughly, meaning that they find it hard to build a clear picture of the world around them. Their work is helping to develop more sensitive ways to detect the disease as well as developing visual aids to help people live with their symptoms.