Could new brain scans improve dementia with Lewy bodies diagnosis?

Research project: In vivo neurite morphology: a novel MRI biomarker of dementia with Lewy bodies? 

Lead investigator: Dr Elijah Mak

  • Institution: University of Cambridge 
  • Grant type: Junior Fellowship
  • Duration: 36 months 
  • Amount: £222,395

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from our Research Network Volunteers:

 ‘I like the international liaison on this project. Dr Mak has a detailed plan with clearly defined objectives both long term and short term.’

Project summary

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Yet, we struggle to correctly diagnose DLB because the changes it causes in the brain can be too subtle to see using normal brain scans.

Dr Mak’s project will test a new way of using brain scans for DLB. This will help to improve diagnosis, tell us more about the condition and help future research and clinical trials.

The background

It has been challenging to understand, diagnose and treat DLB because there can be so much overlap with Alzheimer’s disease. It is important that researchers find new ways of predicting and measuring how the disease progresses that can be used to check if new treatments are effective – these are known as ‘biomarkers’.

One key difference in how DLB affects the brain compared to Alzheimer’s disease is there isn’t as much loss of brain tissue in DLB. This means that the changes to the brain in DLB are much too subtle to be seen by normal brain scans. This has led to a roadblock to how much researchers can learn about DLB while the person is living with the condition. 

Dr Elijah Mak aims to address this issue in his fellowship work. He will use a new brain scanning method to view and analyse the changes in the brain of a person with DLB that are too subtle for conventional brain scan methods to see. No one has used this method to look at DLB yet, so it is hoped that Dr Mak will be able to identify new biomarkers for DLB.

What does this project involve?

Dr Mak will use a new brain scanning method to examine the brains of 30 people living with DLB, 30 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and 30 people who don’t have dementia. This method is able to detect the microscopic changes in the brain as a dementia causing brain disease develops.

One of these changes is the build-up of a sticky protein called alpha-synuclein into dense clumps called Lewy Bodies. However, some people with DLB also have features of Alzheimer’s disease – the build-up of other proteins, plaques of amyloid and twisted coils of tau. This can make it difficult to examine the brains of people with DLB. 

By comparing the brain scans of people with DLB to those with Alzheimer’s disease Dr Mak better understand the differences between the two conditions. As it is common for people to have DLB as well as Alzheimer’s disease, he will be able to see how having both these conditions affects the brain. Having this information and a new brain scan technique will help future researchers perform more accurate studies and clinical trials.

How will this project help people with dementia?

Dr Mak’s project will help people with dementia by improving how medical professionals use brain scans to distinguish between DLB and Alzheimer’s disease.

Having this ability means that clinical trials for treatments for DLB can recruit participants more accurately, being certain that they have DLB. Also researchers will be able to more accurately follow the progression of DLB and see if the new treatments that they are testing are effective.