Researching the antiviral immune system’s role in Alzheimer’s disease

Meet Sophie Sanford, PhD student at the UK Dementia Research Institute, University of Cambridge. 

Favourite things? 

  • Song – Any song by The Staves. I can’t choose!
  • Way to spend time – Playing violin, singing or going to gigs.
  • Memory – The clearest stars I have ever seen, in the Cairngorms. 

Why dementia research? 

A key player and motivator was observing my grandfather’s cognitive decline and how it affected my grandmother in Japan. 

In my undergraduate studies, I found the immune system to be very interesting (and relevant to my body) and I specialised in immunology and infection.

I found out there was a way you could apply our understanding of the immune system to dementia research. And here I am today! 

Sophie Sanford

How has Alzheimer’s Society supported your work? 

Throughout my PhD, I have been lucky enough to meet up and discuss the project with Barry, Monica and Peter – the Alzheimer’s Society Research Network volunteers who are assigned to my project. 

I attended the Society’s Early Career Researcher Retreat this summer to discuss my work with fellow researchers. The travel grant within my studentship also enabled me to attend and present my work at the Alzheimer’s Research UK 2022 conference in Brighton. 

What are you currently working on? 

What is the role of the antiviral immune system in Alzheimer’s disease? This is the question I am trying to answer in my PhD. 

I am investigating immune molecules that are crucial for controlling a viral infection, to see how they affect the toxic build-up of proteins in the brain that we see occurring in Alzheimer’s. 

In my every day, this means I look after brain cells that we use to model how the disease develops. I use a microscope to monitor the protein aggregation, which gets me some lovely images. 

Microscope image of protein aggregation

What difference do you hope this will make? 

I hope that this work will explain at least one of the many complex interactions between the immune system and the brain. 

If we can work out what components of the immune system are detrimental in the disease, this might give us a target and lead us closer to a treatment that slows its progression. 

In what direction would you like to take your research in future? 

Many people regularly take anti-inflammatory drugs for a wide range of diseases. I am really interested in understanding the effects of these drugs in our models of Alzheimer’s disease.

Our hope is that some of these drugs might have a future role to play in reducing the risk or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s. 

How can you help?

£15.50 could pay for an hour of supporting PhD students to conduct research projects.

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Dementia together magazine is for all Alzheimer’s Society supporters and anyone affected by the condition.
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