Researcher profile: Combining genetics and lifestyle

From our Autumn 2016 issue of Care and Cure magazine, hear from Dr Claudia Metzler-Baddeley- an Alzheimer's Society and BRACE research fellow and a senior lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University. She is based at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC).

I am a cognitive neuropsychologist with more than 10 years' experience of working with older adults with dementia, both in research and memory clinic settings. During this time, I have had the chance to meet many people with dementia and their relatives and carers, and to listen to their concerns and day-to-day challenges.

We are all living longer and any one of us, including our loved ones, may be affected by dementia at some point in our lives. My research into ageing and dementia is very much motivated by the need to identify risk early on and develop appropriate strategies to ensure the best quality of life for people with dementia and their families.

'We are all living longer and any one of us, including our loved ones, may be affected by dementia at some point in our lives'. - Dr Metzler-Baddeley

Since joining CUBRIC in 2009, I have been using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to learn more about the impact of the disease on the brain. For example, my colleagues and I found that people with mild cognitive impairment - memory problems beyond normal ageing - develop specific disruptions in brain connections from the hippocampus, a region important for memory. This may help to identify the people with mild cognitive impairment who are at most risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

However, we know that the changes leading to Alzheimer's develop gradually over many years. Ideally we would like to be able to see who is at risk in midlife and work out tailored interventions that may slow down or prevent the disease's development.

With the support of Alzheimer's Society and BRACE, another charity, I am conducting research at CUBRIC into the impact of genetic and lifestyle risk factors of dementia in 180 healthy middle-aged adults. Both dementia and obesity are on the rise and many studies suggest they may be linked. People who are obese in midlife have a greater risk of developing dementia later on, but why this is the case remains unknown.

My research studies the impact of body fat and of the APOE4 gene - the best established genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's - on different properties of brain tissue. APOE codes for a protein that transports cholesterol through the brain. Cholesterol is needed for the repair of a fatty substance called myelin, which surrounds the brain's connections and allows different regions of the brain to communicate with each other efficiently.

It has been suggested that the loss of myelin contributes to the development of Alzheimer's in an important way, and that both obesity and APOE4 may lead to damage of the brain's wiring. With MRI and blood analyses, I am studying whether myelin is reduced in obese people who carry the APOE4 gene and whether this is linked to any other changes.

I am also investigating whether changes in brain tissue may be related to mental functions such as response speed, attention and memory. The aim of my research is to identify early warning signs in midlife that may help us to reduce risk and develop ways to prevent dementia.