Chronic stress as a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer's disease

Lead Investigator: Professor Clive Holmes
Institution: University of Southampton
Grant type: Project
Duration: 3 years
Amount: £309,702
Scientific Title: Chronic stress as a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer's disease

What do we already know?

About 60% of people with Mild Cognitive Impairment will go on develop Alzheimer's disease. There is a lot of variability in how quickly these people go on to develop Alzheimer's disease; one possible environmental factor that is becoming increasingly implicated in this process is chronic stress.

A number of illnesses are known to develop earlier or are made worse by chronic stress, including heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer and multiple sclerosis. Surprisingly little research has been done in people with Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer's disease and their experience of stress.

Increasingly, research using animal models and other small studies in people are implicating stress in the deterioration of memory and learning abilities; this could be linked to the deterioration from Mild Cognitive Impairment to Alzheimer's disease.

What does this project involve?

This study will involve the monitoring of 140 people aged 70 and over with Mild Cognitive Impairment. The participants will be followed for a period of 18 months and assessed for levels of stress and monitored for progression from Mild Cognitive Impairment to dementia. This group of participants will be compared to a group of 70 people without memory problems, who will be tested at the beginning of the trial as a control group.

Participants will be asked to complete cognitive tests in order to track their cognitive decline, questionnaires to assess their personality type, style of coping with stressful events and their perceived level of social support and mood. This will be repeated after 18 months to measure the level of conversion from Mild Cognitive Impairment to dementia. Stressful life events for the participants will also be recorded.

The researchers will also take blood and saliva samples every six months to measure biological markers of stress; blood samples will measure immune function and the saliva samples will measure the levels of an anti-inflammatory chemical, cortisol, which is released by the body in response to chronic stress.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

All people will go through stressful events during their life. Understanding how these events may become a risk factor for the development of Alzheimer's disease is the first stage in developing interventions in this process.

It is believed that this research will allow us to examine two ways in which the stress response can be modified; by identifying ways that we can alter our response to stressful life events in a psychological way, for example through the development of more effective coping methods as an intervention, and through greater understanding of the biological processes that occur during stress, potentially identifying avenues for drug-based interventions.