Newcastle team awarded £500,000 to improve dementia diagnosis

Posted on 5th November 2015

A team of scientists at Newcastle University is embarking on a five-year study to develop new tools for the early diagnosis of dementia with Lewy bodies.

Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity, has invested nearly half a million pounds in the study, which aims to improve the accuracy and timeliness of a dementia diagnosis.

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) affects around 130,000 people in the UK. As well as memory and thinking difficulties, people with DLB experience sleep disturbances, visual hallucinations and movement difficulties. While these signs may sound quite distinctive, the fluctuating nature of the symptoms makes an accurate and timely diagnosis a challenge. Developing tools that can pick-up early clues of the disease will help doctors to provide people with tailored guidance on how to manage their symptoms as well as access to important support services.

The team, led by Prof Alan Thomas from Newcastle University, will explore a new tool for diagnosing DLB earlier than is currently possible. Rather than focusing on biological changes in the brain, the team will instead turn their attention to nerve cell disruption in the heart. Researchers are making this surprising change of focus because of growing evidence that the toxic protein responsible for DLB also builds-up in nerve cells around the body – not just the brain. Prof Thomas will investigate whether a scan to study changes in nerve cell communication in the heart could act as an early red flag for nerve cell damage in the brain.

The scan will be trialled in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) – a condition associated with mild memory and thinking difficulties. There are many different reasons why people develop MCI but in some instances, people with MCI will go on to develop dementia. At the moment, it is difficult for doctors to accurately predict whether someone with a diagnosis of MCI will go on to develop dementia, and what form of the condition they have.

Prof Thomas, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, said:

“The toxic proteins that build up in dementia with Lewy bodies can cause damage throughout the body, including the heart. We want to employ a sophisticated heart scan, already used in the NHS to detect other health conditions, to zero in on the earliest stages of dementia with Lewy bodies. We will be recruiting volunteers from across the area to take part in this five-year study and this new funding will allow us to learn more about the initial stages of dementia with Lewy bodies and refine the tools we can use to make an early diagnosis.”

The study is an example of the importance of Newcastle Academic Health Partners (NAHP) as research will be carried out at the Campus for Ageing and Vitality, a Newcastle University and Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust collaboration.

Officially bringing together Newcastle Hospitals and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trusts with Newcastle University, the NAHP is delivering world-class services through joint scientific research, education and clinical care.

Dr Emma O’Brien from Alzheimer’s Research UK said:

“Nearly 35,000 people in the North East are living with a form of dementia, including dementia with Lewy bodies. It is hugely important that we invest in techniques that improve the accuracy and timeliness of a dementia diagnosis. Improved diagnostic accuracy will enable more tailored support networks to be put in place, improving the lives of people living with DLB and their loved ones. Crucially, a diagnostic approach like this could help people to enter future clinical trials at a time when they are most likely to benefit from new treatments. Alzheimer’s Research UK is pleased to be able to support this pioneering project. As a charity we receive no government funding towards our research so it’s thanks to our generous supporters that we’re able to fund such innovative research.”


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