What happens in the brain in dementia?

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By Dr Laura Phipps | Tuesday 08 March 2016

Not an easy question to answer, but researchers are moving closer to understanding what goes wrong with the circuitry of the brain in diseases like Alzheimer’s, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.

In terms of complexity – one disease stands out more than others in the diversity of symptoms people can experience and the challenge in disentangling the many changes that can happen in the brain to cause them.

At the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2016 today in Manchester we’ve heard from researchers who are working tirelessly to unpick this complexity.

‘A chameleon disease’

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) comes in many guises. While we refer to it as one disease – FTD encompasses a range of different conditions that can affect people in very different ways. Generally, they can be split into three different conditions:

  • Behavioural variant FTD affects personality and behaviour, causing people to behave out of character, lack empathy and social awareness, and struggle with decision making. Research we helped to fund also showed how it can affect a person’s sense of humour.
  • In contrast, progressive non-fluent aphasia is primarily a disorder of language and stops people from being able to get words out and speak fluently.
  • Semantic dementia affects knowledge of what things are or what they mean so people may struggle to use the right words or understand what people are saying.

Some people with FTD develop Parkinson’s-like movement symptoms. Around one in every eight people with behavioural variant FTD will also develop motor neurone disease – characterised by stiff or twitching muscles, muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing.

Although one could easily think these were entirely different diseases, research is showing that they share some common underlying changes in the brain and represent different places on a spectrum.

A local connection

It’s pertinent that we’re talking about this important disease here in Manchester, where much of the founding FTD research took place. In fact, the clinical features of FTD were first described in the ‘Lund-Manchester Criteria’ – a list of symptoms of the disease that still informs diagnoses being made in clinics across the world today.

One of the researchers who led this pioneering work in Manchester back in the early 1990s, Prof David Mann, told the conference today that while we understand more than ever about the disease, the picture of what happens in the brain is becoming ever more complex.

Three main players

Prof Mann explained how brain tissue kindly donated by people with FTD has revealed three proteins that appear to go awry in the brain to cause these conditions – TDP-43, tau and FUS.

Under a microscope, researchers and pathologists have seen clumps of tau protein in the brains of up to half of people with FTD and a similar proportion will have clumps of TDP-43, with FUS present in a smaller number of people.

The different types of FTD tend to associate with different patterns of the three proteins in the brain. Not only does it seem important which proteins are clumping in the brain but where.

Dr Tammaryn Lashley, an Alzheimer’s Research UK-funded Senior Research Fellow at University College London, revealed her latest research into TDP-43 and FUS. The two proteins are part of a group that shuttles between two parts of a cell – like commuters traveling between work and home. Dr Lashley’s research highlights how this process can go wrong in FTD, leaving these proteins stranded in the wrong place inside cells. She’s pinpointed other proteins that seem to also get caught up in this congestion problem, revealing new clues to what’s driving damage in the brain.

However as one protein isn’t solely responsible for one pattern of symptoms, it’s hard to predict exactly what’s happening in the brain in each person with FTD. As drug discovery efforts become more focused on picking out specific proteins to target with new treatments, this could be an important stumbling block for progress in FTD research.

A coordinated push for better diagnosis and new treatments

We heard from Dr Jennifer Whitwell from the Mayo Clinic in the US whose research into brain imaging in FTD is identifying new ways to distinguish between the different types of FTD. On average, people with FTD can wait up to five years for an accurate diagnosis, and reports suggest that almost three quarters of people are initially misdiagnosed. So advances in this area are vital for families affected, as well as helping researchers to improve their approach to studying the disease.

Brain imaging is also a central theme in the Genetic Frontotemporal Dementia Initiative (GENFI), outlined today by Dr Jonathan Rohrer from UCL. This collaborative programme is following hundreds of people whose families are affected by inherited forms of FTD. Using brain scans, the team has already identified particular networks of nerve cells in the brain that are affected differently in FTD caused by different faulty genes.

The study is now entering a second phase with the ultimate aim to map what changes happen in brain, blood and spinal fluid in FTD and when. This will be vital for helping to guide future clinical trials of new treatments in the disease.

As the Alzheimer’s Research UK Drug Discovery Institutes are kick-starting new drug discovery programmes and a Dementia Consortium drug discovery project already focusing on FTD, it’s vital these kinds of initiatives run hand-in-hand.


  1. Susan Smith on 22nd March 2016 at 11:24 am

    found this article informative and that new research is being funded to discover how the brain works.

  2. Michael Hemery on 28th March 2016 at 10:58 am

    I find it quite extraordinary that a fund raising gimmick as was done recently for AR on Facebook takes place and your organisation does not even acknowledge the donations.On the connntrary one just receives further requests for Money.It is exactly the same story with the American Alzheimers Association.Expensive Global get togethers are held at great expense eating up funds donated for research and very little new comes out of them in terms of real progress.Hundreds of well paid researchers around the world are pursuing a common problem in an uncoordinated and wasteful manner.
    For those of us who have experienced the long drawn out agony of relatives with one or other form of dementia it is becoming increasingly frustrating that with so much expertise,so much technology and so many sufferers available to researchers progress is so pathetically slow.It is high time for some Body, some where, to take charge of this process globally and research organisations became accountable for the use of their funds along with clear objectives and time tables for achieving them .

  3. ARUK Blog Editor on 30th March 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Conferences like the Alzheimer’s Research UK conference bring together researchers to encourage collaboration, share progress and avoid unnecessary duplication of efforts. As a charity, we co-lead a group of 20 global research funding bodies to identify areas of common interest and bridge gaps in knowledge. We’ve recently announced 11 newly funded projects coordinated through a global collaboration with three other international funders.

    Dementia is a complex set of diseases to research and funding into research has been very low for many years. Thankfully, due to generous public donations and increased awareness, we are now able to invest more into research than ever before. Breakthroughs don’t happen overnight but are the result of many years of cumulative research that rely on us being able to build the people, the equipment and the resources to support the most innovative science. We are making progress and as a charity, are committed to improving the lives of people with dementia through research.

    If you’d like to read more about how our funding was spent last year, you can read our Annual Review here:

  4. martin fontana on 10th July 2016 at 10:50 am

    my father worked with potentially dangerous chemicals as a Coppersmith from 1927 until 1977.I wondered if any groups of chemicals can increase the occurence of dementia or altzeimers.
    As for making maximum use of funds i hear that several charities have been reviewing the way they raise money and the use of funds as every organisation needs volunteers

  5. Candy on 29th December 2018 at 11:13 pm

    My daddy just past away from dementia

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About the author

Dr Laura Phipps

Team: Science news