Doctoral Training Centres

7. Exeter Doctoral Training Centre

Multi-disciplinary study of dysfunctional brain networks 

Lead supervisor: Professor Andrew Randall
Additional supervisors: Professors Jonathan Mill, Adam Zeman, John Terry, Angela Shore; Drs Jonathan Brown, Christopher Dodds, Katie Lunnon, Marc Goodfellow, David Llewellyn, Aureliu Lavric
Grant type: Doctoral Training Centre
Amount: £442621

The Exeter Doctoral Training Centre has received generous support from the Garfield Weston Foundation

What is a Doctoral Training Centre?

Alzheimer's Society Doctoral Training Centres (DTC) aim to create a cluster of PhD students and clinical fellows working on themed area of dementia research. In addition to generating new knowledge on the theme, the DTCs will also provide support and training to develop the next generation of dementia research leaders.

Why did we support this? Comments from our Research Network:

'I liked the coordinated style of the multidisciplinary plans and comprehensive range of topics.'

'This is designed to deliver the next generation of dementia researchers through multidisciplinary research. The range of research is wide and predominantly biomedical but has been well reasoned and thought out.'

'The proposals demonstrate very clearly the benefits to Alzheimer's disease sufferers from this form of coordinated research.'

What do we already know?

The human central nervous system is incredibly complicated. There are around 100 billion neurons which form around 500 trillion cell-to-cell connections. Together these connections between neurons form structured networks which are both highly complex and highly organized. It is through the signalling within these networks of connected nerve cells that the brain performs most of its computational tasks.

Neurons however are not the whole story – there are other non-neuronal cells in the brain. These cells both support neurons in their activities but also contribute directly to the cell-to-cell signalling that underpins brain function. Furthermore, the brain is served by an extensive and complex network of blood vessels that are required to deliver things the brain needs.

In dementia, however, the integrity of these various complicated biological networks declines rapidly. Understanding how and why this happens and quantifying the consequences are key challenges in treating dementia.

What will the students in this DTC investigate?

The programme's main focus is how dysfunctional brain networks develop and then contribute to the symptoms and progressive functional decline in dementia. The students will be investigating this from different angles within their specialisms.

Three of the projects are developing mathematical tools to better understand dementia; one is aiming to develop a system for diagnosing different forms of dementia, another is simulating the changes in connectivity within different brain regions, and the other is aiming to explain the changes in the brain at different scales, from single cells to the collective network.

Other projects are using different techniques for characterising the development of the disease including brain scans, animal research, and cells from people with particularly high or low genetic risk of Alzheimer's.

Another student will be investigating a potential new technique for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease that tracks changes in the oxygen supply to the brain from the bloodstream.

The final project will be for a trained doctor to bring their expertise to research. They will explore the overlap between epilepsy and dementia, as it is already known that the risk of epilepsy is substantially raised in dementia.

How will this benefit people affected by dementia?

This DTC programme is made up of a series of biomedical doctoral training research projects that are focussed on understanding dementia mechanisms and consequences. The programme lies at the more applied end of biomedical research spectrum and thus is focussed on gaining new knowledge that is highly relevant to aiding the global research community in the battle to defeat dementia. 

In particular, the work around improving diagnosis has the potential to be translated into practice within just a few years. Making an accurate diagnosis is currently very difficult and this could help the hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who haveundiagnosed dementia.