Leading dementia research charity announces £70K new funding for Sheffield scientist

Posted on 17th May 2016

Dr Simon Bell of the University of Sheffield has received nearly £70K from Alzheimer’s Research UK to shed light on a possible cause of damage to the brain in Alzheimer’s disease.

The funding announcement comes during Dementia Awareness Week, a national initiative to increase public awareness and understanding of dementia – a condition that affects 850,000 people in the UK.

The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease begin to appear when nerve cells in the brain become damaged and can no longer communicate with one another. While research focusing on these cells is crucial, other types of cell in the brain may also have an important role to play in the disease.

Star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes have a number of important functions, from supporting communication between nerve cells to defending the brain from infections. The new funding will enable Dr Bell and a team at Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN) to study how astrocytes are affected in people with Alzheimer’s. By using innovative stem cell techniques, the scientists are able to take a skin sample from someone with Alzheimer’s and then transform these skin cells into astrocytes that can be studied in the laboratory.

Dr Bell said:

“There are around 90 billion nerve cells in the human brain but, large as this number is, they are outnumbered many times over by astrocytes. The role of astrocytes in diseases like Alzheimer’s is not well understood but we suspect they do not function as they normally would. We know that in healthy brains, astrocytes provide nerve cells with chemicals that are vital for their normal function and we want to know whether this support could be compromised in Alzheimer’s disease. We are delighted to have secured this funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK for research that will increase our understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s and could provide important groundwork for the development of future treatments.”

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

“Dementia isn’t a normal part of ageing but the result of physical changes to the brain caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s. Research is making it ever clearer that Alzheimer’s is a hugely complex disease that involves many different aspects of brain function. It is important for research to help us understand the biological underpinnings of the disease and how these problems lead to devastating symptoms like memory loss, confusion and personality change. Improving our knowledge of the causes of Alzheimer’s is vital for developing new ways to help people affected by the condition.

“There are around half a million people in the UK living with Alzheimer’s and with no new treatments in over a decade, studies like this pioneering project offer real hope in the fight against dementia. Alzheimer’s Research UK receives no Government funding for the research we support. It is only thanks to the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to fund vital dementia research like Dr Bell’s project.”

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