Cambridge researchers taking action against dementia get £50k boost

16 May 2022

Dementia Action Week 2022

Profs Maria Grazia Spillantini and Aviva Tolkovsky from the University of Cambridge have received £50,000 to support research looking at the toxic proteins involved in the diseases that cause dementia. The funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK comes during Dementia Action Week (16-20 May) as part of a £2 million package of new research funding right across the UK.

The tau protein is found in all our brains and helps with the structure and communication between our cells. In some of the diseases that cause dementia, the tau protein behaves differently and starts to form into tangles. This leads to damage to the connections between nerve cells and inflammation in the brain.

When we are healthy, our brain’s immune cells, microglia, are on hand to protect the brain and keep connections between our nerve cells healthy. When there’s a build-up of tau in these cells, our microglia remove the nerve cells, and this could cause more harm than good.

When microglia remove tau cells, they can end up releasing tau and other proteins back into the brain causing further damage. One of the proteins released is a biological catalyst, an enzyme called MMP3, which breaks down proteins around the nerve cells, and this can upset the delicate balances of cells and proteins we have in our brain environment.

Prof Spillantini and her team at the university’s department of Clinical Neurosciences will study MMP3 to see what affect it has on the brain and whether it worsens damage in people with tau build-up caused diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The team will identify the different enzymes that are released when microglia clear away nerve cells affected by tau tangles, and then look at where these enzymes are found and how they change the brain environment.

The researchers will analyse brain tissue donated by people but also use cutting-edge technology to grow mini brains in the lab from cells of people living with a disease involving tau.

Prof Maria Spillantini, from the University of Cambridge, said:
“Tau is a key culprit in Alzheimer’s and a number of other devastating diseases that cause memory and thinking decline, personality changes, communication difficulties and movement problems. This Pilot Project will provide the initial results to show whether biological catalysts like MMP are important in driving these disease processes. We hope these findings can then be the basis for future studies to understand the effect of MMPs and their potential as biological markers that could support more accurate diagnosis.


Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“Dementia affects nearly one million people in the UK including 8,000 people around in Cambridge alone. The condition is not an inevitable part of getting older but the result of diseases that damage the brain.

“By unpicking the complex interactions that happen in the brain in Alzheimer’s, vital research underway in Cambridge is helping to bring us one step closer to finding a new treatment that can stop this disease from developing.

“This Dementia Action Week it’s not only researchers that can make a difference when it comes to dementia research. We urgently need people living with the condition and also healthy volunteers to sign up to take part in vital research studies. To register your interest and Join Dementia Research you can call our team on 0300 111 5111 or email