Scottish researchers awarded £100K to drive forward a cure for dementia

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By Aoife Cosgrave | Wednesday 29 May 2024

Researchers based at leading Scottish Universities have received support from Alzheimer’s Research UK, helping them to develop future treatments for dementia.

The £100k is part of a £4 million funding announcement that will help UK researchers find new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent dementia. Over the last two decades, Alzheimer’s Research UK has provided over £10m of funding to dementia research in Scotland.

Understanding the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease

Dr Shuzo Sakata, based at the University of Strathclyde has been awarded £70K to understand more about the link between sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, in the hope of finding new ways to prevent the disease.

Research has shown that changes in sleep patterns are common in people with dementia, even in its early stages. However, the connection between sleep and dementia is still a mystery.

Speaking about the project Dr Sakata says:

“My project will hopefully shed light on how sleep affects the brain’s immune cells in Alzheimer’s. It’s the first time this will be studied and could help find new ways to treat and prevent Alzheimer’s disease in the future, which is an incredibly exciting prospect”.

As part of this pilot project, Dr Sakata will be looking at how sleep disruption affects microglia, the brain’s immune cells. Microglia protect the brain by removing debris, which includes the harmful protein amyloid which builds up in Alzheimer’s disease.

During sleep, microglia in a healthy brain extend their arms and increase their levels of calcium. But if there’s a lack of sleep, microglia shrink their arms becoming a rounded shape.

How the protein amyloid, which is involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, is linked to these changes in calcium is unknown.

Using imaging techniques to see inside the immune cells in different areas of the mouse brain, Dr Sakata will see how amyloid affects calcium levels in microglia while sleeping and when awake. He will also look at how a lack of sleep affects the calcium levels.

How does tau disrupt the brain’s protective barrier?

Dr Paula Beltran-Lobo, based at the University of Edinburgh, has received £30K to investigate how the protective blood brain barrier becomes damaged by the diseases that cause dementia. The blood brain barrier controls the brain’s blood supply and regulates which substances cross it.

She will be focusing on star-shaped cells called astrocytes, which support the blood brain barrier and keep it healthy. But when a protein called tau builds up in astrocytes in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Frontotemporal dementia, it can interfere with their function. This affect on the astrocytes can lead to the blood brain barrier becoming ‘leaky’.

Little is known about how tau builds up in astrocytes during disease, or how it affects the astrocytes’ role in keeping the blood brain barrier healthy. By using brain tissue from people who had high levels of tau protein when they died, Dr Beltran-Lobo hopes to gain a better understanding into how the blood brain barrier is affected in dementia.

Dr Beltran-Lobo shares her vision for this project:

By figuring out how the communication between astrocytes and the blood brain barrier becomes disrupted by tau, we may uncover key proteins that we can target with drugs. This funding provides a stepping stone for my research, which I hope will lead to the development of treatments which target earlier stages of the disease.”

Dr Julia Dudley, Head of Strategic Programmes at Alzheimer’s Research UK says:

In the UK alone, nearly one million people are living with dementia. So there’s never been a more pressing need to prevent or treat the diseases that cause this devastating condition.

“Alzheimer’s Research UK is proud to support research that’s gaining a greater understanding of how these diseases develop in the brain which could lead to the breakthroughs that people with dementia deserve and need.

“It’s essential that we keep investing in studies like these to accelerate progress towards a cure, and to end the fear, harm and heartbreak from dementia.”

 

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Aoife Cosgrave