Going Dutch – how joint funding is helping to tackle the big questions in dementia


By Kirsty Marais | Thursday 14 November 2013

If you’re in Scotland, you may have seen media coverage in recent weeks of a major new project to study how connections in the brain deteriorate during Alzheimer’s. Scientists at the University of Edinburgh are beginning a new study to find ways to stop the disease ravaging people’s memory.

The three-year project is the result of a new way of funding research for us, having joined forces with the Scottish Government to co-fund the work – with each organisation putting in half of the £450,000 total needed for the study.

So what are we hoping this research will achieve?

Preserving memory

We know that in Alzheimer’s, the brain comes under attack from excessive build-up of two proteins called amyloid and tau. Amyloid forms sticky ‘clumps’ around nerve cells, while tau tangles up inside cells.


Healthy nerve cell (left), and an Alzheimer’s affected nerve cell (right).

As these proteins accumulate, nerve cells start to die and the connections between these cells, called synapses, break down. In a healthy brain, nerve cells use synapses to send tiny electrical impulses and chemical messages to each other. But when synapses deteriorate, nerve cells have difficulty communicating with each other, and it’s this that leads to the memory loss that is such a devastating feature of Alzheimer’s. The more synapses are lost, the worse people’s symptoms become.


Nerve cells (left) and synapses; points where nerve cells connect to each other (right).

In their new study, the researchers will work to understand exactly what mechanisms are involved in synapse breakdown, and look for ways of protecting synapses and stopping memory decline.

Focus on tau

A big focus of the project is the role of tau. The researchers have already shown that there is greater loss of synapses in areas of the brain where amyloid has accumulated. They suspect that when tau is added to the mix, synapse loss may be even worse, and they are planning a series of experiments to investigate this theory in detail.

One hope is that compounds designed to reduce tau’s effects could stop synapses being harmed. The team plan to investigate whether there are specific forms of tau that are toxic, with the possibility that drugs could be tailored to target different forms of tau. By testing treatments in the lab, they hope to take the first steps towards the development of a new treatment that could be tested in people.

Bridging the gap

Too often, laboratory research can seem far removed from the realities of the daily lives of people with dementia. When we and the Scottish Government first invited researchers to apply for funding, we were clear that we wanted to support a project with a clear route to patient benefit. Of course, this research is in its infancy – but it carries a real aim to bridge the gap between fundamental understanding of disease and the development of much-needed treatments.

There are two important collaborations behind this project: a funding partnership between Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Scottish Government, and a scientific collaboration, with the researchers in Edinburgh working with scientists across the Atlantic. If we’re going to make serious inroads in the fight against dementia, we have to bridge some of the ‘gaps’ that exist between people and encourage more of these partnerships.


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Kirsty Marais