Walking amongst giants

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By | Monday 07 April 2014

As a champion for Alzheimer’s Research UK, I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend their annual conference last week amidst the dreaming spires of Oxford.

Surely that would be boring for anyone other than fellow scientists, I hear you cry?! Well, I’ve been a fundraiser and campaigner for Alzheimer’s Research UK for over nine years now as I firmly believe that science and innovation hold the key to defeating dementia and this gave me a chance to mingle with the people whose work I help to fund and I hope will lead to treatments and cures for dementia.

This year's conference was the largest ever, with over 300 researchers attending.

This year’s conference was the largest ever, with over 300 researchers attending.

As I approached the conference centre I was greeted by a giant poster with the faces of two fellow supporters, Patrick and Carol Franklin-Adams, so I felt at home immediately. As I entered the building I felt a wave of excitement as I met the Alzheimer’s Research UK team and the first thing I did was to grab a coffee and immerse myself in the crowd of researchers milling around.

I wanted to use the occasion to learn as much as I could about the various types of research projects underway at the moment.

The only way to do that was to walk up to someone, confess that my only scientific credentials consist of my O levels in Chemistry, Physics and Biology and a lifelong fascination with the workings of the human brain, and ask them to tell me about their specific area of research.

So that’s exactly what I did!

I heard about the relationship between tau tangles and fyn, amyloid beta aggregation, looking at the disease at the sub-atomic level, dyslipidemia (aka high cholesterol) which was of particular interest to me as I have high cholesterol despite a healthy lifestyle and diet, the effect of inflammation on the development of dementia and many more interesting subjects. It was wonderful to meet so many young and enthusiastic researchers.

I firmly believe that science and innovation hold the key to defeating dementia

Throughout the programme of lectures I attended I was worried that I wouldn’t understand what was being said. What I found though was that even if I didn’t understand exactly what some of the scientific terms meant, I could see the process that the researcher had gone through in their work, including deadends, and that was fascinating in itself.

At the end of the first day there was a debate entitled ‘Genetics versus the Environment’ in which each side presented their case for investment in their area and the audience voted at the end. In the case for the Geneticists, Prof Kevin Morgan presented a strong case in which there was much talk about discovering how risk genes could aid drug development whilst the case for Environment, presented by Prof John Gallacher focused on health aspects, eg diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, depression and obesity. I was surprised when the Environment won as I didn’t fully understand how someone could reduce their chances of developing dementia if they were genetically predisposed to the disease. I reasoned that the answer lies somewhere in between the two disciplines.


Debating Genetics vs Environment (from left to right) Prof Kevin Morgan, Prof Julie Williams, Prof John Gallacher and Prof Karen Ritchie

During dinner I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Jo Rushworth (University of Leeds), Dr Sebastian Crutch (University College London) and Prof Peter Lantos (a Trustee of Alzheimer’s Research UK).  I was fascinated to learn about their areas of research: Jo explained how having identified the process in which clumps of a harmful protein attach themselves to brain cells causing them to die, they were able to stop this by using extracts from green tea and red wine. Although I realised this was still in the early stages of research it was good news for me as I enjoy both those drinks! Sebastian is a leading expert on rare forms of dementia such as posterior cortical atrophy and frontotemporal dementia. I was impressed by how well he was able to explain his work in a way that I could understand. I told them about how I try to attract attention to Alzheimer’s Research UK by running marathons, sometimes knitting or crocheting at the same time, and we had a lively discussion about other possible fundraising activities!

Attending the conference made me realise just how important this sort of event is for researchers to meet up and exchange ideas. I came away feeling excited for the future, knowing that the money raised by myself and fellow supporters of Alzheimer’s Research UK is being put to good use by our researchers.

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