While dementia is associated with ageing, we urgently need to better understand why some people develop the condition at a younger age. Alzheimer’s disease in people under 65 is the most common form of early-onset dementia. While rarer cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s are wholly genetic, many other people who develop the disease earlier in life do not have a clear family history. Relatively little is known about the contribution of genetic and non-genetic risk factors in these non-inherited cases, or how the disease progresses. This ambitious project aims to follow people with early-onset Alzheimer’s over time to understand the course of the disease, the genetics and how to detect it at its earliest stages.
The findings from this study have the potential not only to inform our understanding of the nature of the disease, but to highlight innovative new ways to detect and track it. If the disease is detected early, when limited damage has been done in the brain, there is a better chance of treatments working and providing people with a better quality of life. Developing techniques to track the progression of the disease could also transform the design of clinical trials, giving them a better chance of success.
The team has designed an ambitious long-term study into early-onset Alzheimer’s which will combine brain scans with blood and spinal fluid samples to track the development of the disease over time. During the course of the study, volunteers will also undergo a series of memory and thinking tests, including assessments of smell, eye movements and sleep quality. Carers will also be asked for their input on the quality of life of those with the disease.
By studying patterns of symptoms and how they change over time, and comparing these to the biological changes taking place in the brain, the team will be able to track how the disease progresses. Their findings will shed more light on why early-onset Alzheimer’s can affect people in such different ways and how it differs from late-onset Alzheimer’s.
To develop ways to detect and track changes in early-onset Alzheimer’s, the team has also been studying spinal fluid from people with the disease. They have been measuring levels of hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins in the samples. Changes in these proteins may act as ‘markers’ for early-onset Alzheimer’s that could help to detect the disease and track its course.
The team is also using clinical information and DNA samples from all possible cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s seen at the Dementia Research Centre since it opened 20 years ago. They now have a large sample of over 600 patients and have completed detailed studies of the DNA code of these people. This is one of the largest studies in early-onset Alzheimer’s in the UK and one of the first in the world.
Prof Nick Fox
University College London
1 June 2017 - 30 June 2017
Full project name
Research into early-onset dementia