Southampton student shares findings at UK’s leading dementia research conference

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By Philip Tubby | Wednesday 15 March 2017

Day 2: Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2017, Aberdeen

Over 400 of the country’s leading dementia researchers will hear from University of Southampton PhD student Grace Hallinan today as she shares her findings at the UK’s largest gathering of dementia researchers. She will present her research into how a hallmark Alzheimer’s protein spreads through the brain at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2017 taking place in Aberdeen, 14-15 March.

Grace is a PhD student working at the University of Southampton and is funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the UK’s leading dementia research charity. Her work focuses on a protein called tau, which builds up into tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and several other forms of dementia. Early on in the disease process, these tangles are found in particular regions of the brain, but spread throughout the brain as the disease worsens. Researchers have been trying to understand how this spread occurs, as halting it could be a way to reduce nerve cell damage in Alzheimer’s disease.

Grace Hallinan said:

“We have long known that tau protein spreads through the brain as Alzheimer’s disease progresses, but we haven’t understood how. Previous research has suggested that when nerve cells die in Alzheimer’s, they release the toxic tau protein which is then taken up by surrounding nerve cells, however my work indicates this may not be the case.

“By growing cells in a particular way, I have been able to track the spread of toxic tau from one nerve cell to another. This has revealed that nerve cells release tau protein at communication points called synapses, and that tau is released when messages are transmitted between nerve cells. Showing that tau spreads between nerve cells that are still alive is important as it suggests that preventing this spread could protect nerve cells and halt the spread of damage throughout the brain.

 “As someone who is at an early stage in their research career, this is a fantastic opportunity to share my work with such a large gathering of leading dementia scientists, and I hope that presenting my latest findings will help spark new ideas and collaborations.”

The brain is the most complex structure in the known universe and understanding how it works and how it goes wrong in dementia is an important challenge for researchers. Across the world, scientists are taking different approaches to help people with dementia and the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2017 will bring together experts from a range of research disciplines.

Dr Rosa Sancho, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“There are currently 850,000 living with dementia in the UK, with around 20,000 of those living in Hampshire. Alzheimer’s Research UK is currently investing nearly £1m into pioneering dementia research in the Solent region, but with research into the condition still starkly underfunded compared to other disease areas, there is a lot more to do if we are to change the lives of those it affects. We are committed to not only funding the best ideas, but investing in people. By training the next generation of researchers like Grace, we are boosting the number of scientists tackling the condition and working to improve the lives of people with dementia.”

About the author

Philip Tubby