How a window into the brain can open doors to early detection

Researchers are revealing how the locus coeruleus is involved in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, using a new brain imaging technique.



Dr Hou and her team are shedding light on a new area of research for Alzheimer’s detection and treatment. The team is looking at key changes that take place in the locus coeruleus – an area of the brain affected in Alzheimer’s disease. This area, found at the base of the brain, controls functions like pupil dilation, heart rate and blood pressure.

Animal-based research has shown that nerve cells within the locus coeruleus die in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, causing a reduction in the levels of the chemical messenger noradrenaline. Noradrenaline, which is produced in this area of the brain, has been shown to affect the amyloid protein – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the complex nature of measuring nerve cell changes in the locus coeruleus has limited the amount of information that researchers can collect about these changes in people with Alzheimer’s.

Using an innovative brain imaging technique, the team is measuring nerve cell changes in the locus coeruleus, gaining new insights into the role of this area in the disease. This data could be used to improve future diagnostic techniques and contribute to the development of new drug treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, causing symptoms that have a profound effect on someone’s quality of life. While there are treatments available to combat some of the symptoms, there are currently no medications that slow down or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s.

Much of current Alzheimer’s research is focusing on the proteins amyloid and tau, which clump together in Alzheimer’s to form amyloid plaques and tau tangles. By exploring the locus coeruleus and its links to the early stages of Alzheimer’s, this project is adding to our current knowledge, opening up a new field of study to researchers and contributing to future drug development.

The findings from this innovative project will be used by the researchers to begin a larger study that can collect data from a bigger group of volunteers. The more the team can learn about the links between the locus coeruleus and other biological traits seen in Alzheimer’s, the more they will help future treatment hopes to explore whether a drug that targets these changes could change the course of the disease.

Dr Hou and her team are studying volunteers with mild Alzheimer’s, moderate Alzheimer’s and healthy participants. The comprehensive MRI brain imaging technique they are using is enabling them to measure any brain changes in much greater detail. Any changes they identify in the locus coeruleus can be compared with the volunteer’s performance in other assessments, including memory and thinking tests. This will help the reseachers to establish whether damage to the locus coeruleus has an effect on how the symptoms of Alzheimer’s impact the everyday life of those with the disease. The team will compare all the observation they make of the locus coeruleus in people with Alzheimer’s to a group of healthy volunteers, creating a clearer picture of what’s happening in the disease and determining the severity of any changes in Alzheimer’s.

The team is also using blood samples to identify biological fingerprints that are associated with Alzheimer’s. Studying how changes in the locus coeruleus relate to changes in blood-based biological markers of key processes like inflammation can provide important information that they hope could aid the design of an early diagnostic technique for Alzheimer’s.

Scientist looking at brain scans

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Awarded to
Dr Ruihua Hou

University of Southampton

Current Award

1 September 2016 - 31 August 2018

Full project name
Gaining new insight into the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease: investigating the role of the locus coeruleus using neuromelanin-sensitive MRI

Funding boost for Southampton

Take a look at our website to read more about two pioneering studies in Southampton.

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