Developing brain measuring methods to detect early dementia signs

Read about a research project we funded into detecting early dementia in mice: The contribution of amyloid vs tau.

Lead Investigator: Prof Bettina Platt

Institution: University of Aberdeen
Grant type: Project
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £278, 930

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'Offers potential for early diagnosis via the development of new tests and more sensitive diagnostic tools'

 'I feel it would have important implications for the early diagnosis of AD'

'This research could lead to early diagnosis of dementia before visible signs are noticed'

What do we already know?

One of the key challenges in dementia research is finding a way to identify whether symptoms such as memory problems are related to normal ageing or to dementia. Some people may have mild cognitive impairment, which can cause problems with memory and thinking but not to the same extent as dementia. Some people with mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop dementia but there is currently no way to know who will be affected.

An important area of research that may help to understand early dementia signs is understanding and detecting small changes in brain function that are caused by the condition. The brain changes in several ways during dementia development; for example the way brain cells communicate with each other may be altered. One way to measure these brain changes is through electroencephalography (EEG). EEG is generally faster and more sensitive than other brain-measuring techniques, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is often used as part of the diagnostic process for dementia. EEG is also more comfortable for the person involved. 

What does this project involve?

Professor Platt and her colleagues believe that EEG technology will be able to detect very small and subtle alterations that can indicate changes in brain function due to dementia rather than mild cognitive impairment or normal ageing. They are aiming to develop an understanding of how EEG readings can relate to dementia symptoms, including problems with memory and learning. 

They will use mice that show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease or frontotemporal dementia to measure EEG readings whilst the mice undertake specific learning and memory tasks. They will compare these readings to mice that are not showing symptoms of the condition. They hope to find out whether there are detectable changes in the EEG readings, particularly between mild cognitive impairment and progression to dementia.

The study will also aim to find out whether there is a difference between the EEG readings of the mice that show symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and those that have similarities to frontotemporal dementia. This will allow them to understand how the different conditions affect the brain in the early stages, particularly with regards to the presence of the hallmark proteins amyloid and tau, which have different roles in these conditions.  

How will this benefit people with dementia?

An understanding of the changes that happen in the brain in the earliest stages of dementia will allow researchers to uncover potential pathways and explanations for the onset of the condition. Identifying whether a person with mild cognitive impairment is at risk of going on to develop dementia is a priority for dementia research as this is a key area for targeting with any potential treatments.

If the research finds that EEG readings can accurately and sensitively detect changes in brain function due to dementia in mice, then this technology could be further developed to work out whether the method can be of benefit to people.

It is currently very difficult to properly identify and diagnose dementia in the earliest stages. Enabling people to receive an early diagnosis will allow them to access the support, treatments and information that they need. 

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