Understanding links between diabetes, infections and dementia risk

Lead Investigator: Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash
Institution: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Grant type: PhD studentship
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £89,683.00

Scientific Title: Investigating the effect of infections on cognition and dementia in people with diabetes

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'A focussed and very useful project with potentially important outcomes, making intelligent use of available data.'

'I think this would make an excellent PhD studentship with good experience from using new datasets with a blend of clinical judgement, statistical analysis and the chance of a useful outcome.'

'As my mother was a classic case of having increasingly complex health problems including diabetes, this proposed study is close to my heart.'

What do we already know?

Diabetes occurs when the body is no longer able to control its sugar levels. These sugar levels are regulated by the hormone insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or no longer responds to insulin properly, and so the sugar levels are unregulated. This can lead to complications such as nerve, heart and kidney damage. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled by diet, exercise and sometimes medication. It is estimated that there are about 3.9 million people in the UK living with diabetes. 

There is strong evidence that poorly-managed type 2 diabetes can increase risk of dementia.

People with diabetes are also at higher risk of certain infections, such as skin and urinary tract infections. As infections have also been linked to risk or progression of dementia, it could be that a combined approach to manage diabetes and reduce the likelihood of infections could help to reduce the risk of dementia. 

What does this project involve?

The PhD student on this project will use large sets of anonymised electronic health records that have already been collected for dementia research via the Dementias Platform UK network. 

The project will consist of two studies. In the first study, the student will see whether infections affect dementia risk in people with diabetes more than in people without diabetes. They will do this by examining records from a database of GP records called the ‘Clinical Practice Research Datalink’.

This data will have information about whether someone has diabetes, if they have visited their doctor due to infections and if they have been diagnosed with dementia. The student will analyse this data to understand the relationship between diabetes and dementia. They will also investigate whether infections increase risk of dementia in people with diabetes more than people without diabetes.  

The second study will use data from the ‘UK biobank’ dataset. This consists of GP and health records as well as blood samples and information from questionnaires, which includes questions about memory and thinking abilities. The PhD student will use these data to understand whether infections can affect brain function and memory and thinking abilities and whether this effect is seen more in people with diabetes. 

How will this benefit people with dementia?

Understanding the links between diabetes, infections and dementia could help researchers and doctors to understand how to help people with diabetes reduce their risk of dementia. This study will add important knowledge in this area and help to inform future studies that aim to find strategies that can reduce the risk of dementia for people with diab