Exploring the role of the thalamus in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease

Research Project: Contribution of the limbic thalamus to spatial memory and tauopathy

Lead Investigator:  Dr Tim Viney

  • Institution:  University of Oxford
  • Grant type:  PhD Studentship
  • Duration:  36 months
  • Amount:  £85,000

Why did we fund this research? 

It's an original idea to focus on the role of the midline thalamus, as this key area has been neglected in the genesis of dementia.

Project summary 

Remembering the locations of landmarks and objects is an essential survival skill. This ability, known as spatial memory, helps us navigate our way around different environments.

In Alzheimer’s disease, areas of the brain involved in spatial memory are amongst the first to degenerate. Yet it is unclear how the disease progresses to these areas.

Dr Viney aims to investigate the role of an underexplored brain region, the thalamus, and how this region may influence the spread of Alzheimer’s disease to other areas of the brain. 

The background  

Navigating through familiar surroundings and remembering familiar landmarks and objects are essential to everyday life. The hippocampus and its surrounding areas of the brain responsible for these abilities and essentially act as our brain’s GPS.

In early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the nerve cells in these regions begin to die, resulting in a loss of spatial memory.

Although we know that the build-up of a toxic protein, tau, causes this neurodegeneration, researchers are less clear about how tau initially spreads to these areas.

Dr Viney aims to investigate the thalamus, a small structure in the brain, which sends signals to other areas of the brain.

With limited prior research into the role of the thalamus in spatial memory, this work could provide insight into the spread and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

What does this project involve? 

The researchers will use a combination of techniques to investigate the involvement of the thalamus in Alzheimer’s disease. 

They will use a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease that has a modified form of tau. By recording the activity of nerve cells in the thalamus and cortex, and assessing the memory of the mice, the researchers could provide insight into how tau affects memory.

They will also label these nerve cells in the thalamus of the mice with a dye. Using donated brain tissue from people with Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers will compare the mice and human tissue to see the types of nerve cells involved in memory function and the changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease.

How will this project help people with dementia? 

There has been little research into the role of the thalamus in spatial memory and how Alzheimer’s disease spreads through the brain. 

Dr Viney’s research could provide insight into the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias involving tau. By understanding how the disease spreads and the specific cells involved at the early stage, we could ultimately identify new drug targets. 


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