Detecting changes in the brain in frontotemporal dementias

Read about a research project we funded on new MRI markers for detecting and defining frontotemporal dementias

Lead Investigator: Professor Jason Warren
Institution: Institute of Neurology, University College London
Grant type: Project
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £221,380

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'There appear to be significant problems with diagnosis at present so this seems an important area. I also liked the consultation with support groups in developing this research proposal.'

'An early and accurate diagnosis of any type of dementia is very important and so I feel that this research is very worthwhile especially if it could then be adapted to diagnose other types of dementia.'

'I am happy to give my support to helping to redress the imbalance between funding research into Frontotemporal Dementia and other forms of dementia.'

What do we already know?

Frontotemporal dementia describes a diverse group of diseases that cause changes in people's behaviour and communication abilities. Types of this form of dementia include behavioural variant frontotemporal dementia and primary progressive aphasia. The word 'frontotemporal' refers to the front of the brain (frontal) and sides of the brain (temporal), which are most affected by this type of dementia. 

Frontotemporal dementia is most often diagnosed in people aged between 45 and 65 and is a significant cause of younger onset dementia. However, it can affect people in their 30s and early 40s, and in those over 65. Previous work by Professor Warren and colleagues has significantly improved our understanding of frontotemporal dementia, including how it affects the brain and the different groups of symptoms that people can experience. As it is a complex group of diseases, diagnosis can often be delayed. There are also challenges in designing clinical trials for people with frontotemporal dementia. 

What does this project involve?

Professor Warren will build on recent advances in our understanding of frontotemporal dementia and use newly developed tools to understand changes in the brain. This will allow the research team to find signals in the body that identify  the diseases causing the condition. This is important for improving diagnosis and designing clinical trials to test new treatments.

The study makes extensive use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, which reveal how the brain is working in a number of different ways. The researchers will use a state-of-the-art MRI scanner to assess a wide range of signals of disease, such as shrinkage of brain areas, brain activity, blood flow, changes in the microscopic structure of the brain and disease processes such as inflammation.

Professor Warren and the team will combine the brain scans with other clinical information about the person, for example whether they have certain genes, or changes in their thinking abilities.. This will allow them to develop a more detailed understanding of the different conditions that cause frontotemporal dementia. The researchers will also measure changes over time, which they hope will allow them to develop ways topredict how symptoms and signs might develop. . Establishing the most effective measures of brain changes will provide essential information for future clinical trials of new treatments. This can inform how many people should be enrolled in trials, and how success of a treatment could be measured.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

The insights gained from new brain imaging techniques may help to improve diagnosis for people with frontotemporal dementia in the future. Improved understanding of changes over time could allow for more a more accurate picture of how the condition is likely to develop over time. In the longer term, advancements in diagnosis and measurement of changes in the brain will play an important part in designing treatment trials for people with frontotemporal dementia.