Social withdrawal and Alzheimer's

From our spring 2018 issue of Care and Cure magazine, we meet Dr James Dachtler, a dementia researcher looking at social withdrawal and Alzheimer's disease.

Who are you?

My name is Dr James Dachtler. I am a researcher who is interested in understanding the role of social withdrawal in Alzheimer’s disease. I am in my second year of a three-year research fellowship at Durham University.

What are you doing?

We tend to think of Alzheimer’s disease as mainly affecting memory. While this is true, we know that changes in behaviour happen too. In some people, social withdrawal – avoiding friends, family and activities that they liked before – occurs years before Alzheimer’s is diagnosed. Other researchers have shown that, while living with Alzheimer’s disease, the more people you meaningfully interact with, the slower your onset of memory problems. An area of the brain called the amygdala is affected in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s. This has been called the ‘social area’ of the brain because it helps us to engage in interactions with other people.

So far, researchers have not been able to explain why social withdrawal happens in Alzheimer’s. We want to see if social withdrawal relates to changes taking place inside the amygdala. Using a mouse model of Alzheimer’s – mice that have been bred to have the symptoms of the disease – we will watch how they interact with each other and how well they remember each other.

Then, to see if social withdrawal in these mice is caused by brain changes, we will use a method called electrophysiology to see how well cells in the amygdala communicate with each other. Then we will use a brain scan technique called diffusion tensor imaging to see how well the mouse’s amygdala connects to other brain regions (see the image below). If the cells aren’t communicating clearly with each other inside the amygdala, and if the connections that link the amygdala to other brain areas are weak, then the instructions that help the mouse know how to behave and react to others aren’t been sent.

Why do this research?

Last year, a study showed that being married lowered your risk of developing dementia. Alzheimer’s Society activities such as Singing for the Brain are also beneficial for the symptoms of dementia. Why? We believe that this is because of meaningful social engagement. This means it is important to know whether social withdrawal is a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. By investigating the effects of dementia on the amygdala, we will be able to find out how to support people living with the condition more effectively.

What’s next?

Since starting this study we are now running a clinical trial. This trial looks at whether changes in social behaviour show that mild memory issues will progress to Alzheimer’s disease. If this trial goes well, we will apply for funding for larger clinical trials with the NHS for drug therapies that improve social motivation and so may slow the progression of the disease.

Meet more of our dementia researchers. 

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