Collecting genetic information to understand more about the causes of dementia

Research project: A regulatory genomics resource linked to Brains for Dementia Research cohort

  • Lead Investigator: Professor Jonathan Mill
  • Institution: University of Exeter Medical School  
  • Grant type: Project Grant 
  • Duration: 14 months

Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK are providing £18,250 each to support the costs of this project. 

What do we already know?

The diseases that cause dementia are incredibly complex and researchers still don’t fully understand how they affect the brain and why. To learn more about how these diseases damage the human brain, researchers can request brain tissue from brain banks across the UK. 

Brains for Dementia Research (BDR) is joint initiative of Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK that funds a network of brain banks across the UK. They receive brain donations and currently store brain tissue donated by over 700 people with dementia and people who don’t have dementia to use as a comparison. As well as brain tissue, detailed medical information was also collected from the donors and is available to researchers.  

Brain tissue can also provide genetic information and one way of understanding how the disease could develop is by studying our DNA - the genetic blueprint of the cells of the body. These blueprints give instructions for actions to be carried out that help the cell to function. The researchers are interested in a process called DNA methylation this is a way of controlling which instructions are carried out and which are blocked.

Researchers can use this information to find out how specific genes affect cells in people with and without dementia.

What does this project involve?

Professor Mill and his team will be looking at DNA methylation in every sample collected by the BDR brain banks. They hope to understand more about how DNA methylation can be different in people with or without dementia and what this might mean about how dementia develops. The team will extract DNA from each sample and analyse the different markers using state-of-the-art techniques. 

When complete the researchers will have put together a collection of genetic information on dementia, the scale of which has not been seen before. This collection will be able to show researchers how genes are regulated in people with and without dementia.

The researchers will make sure that the information is freely available to other researchers who can use it to understand more about the underlying causes of dementia.

How will this help people living with dementia? 

The causes of the various types of dementia are highly complex and researchers are still trying to understand the tiny changes that happen in the brains of people with dementia.

The data generated by this project will provide researchers with unique and incredibly valuable genetic information about dementia and how variation in our genes may lead to the condition. 

These data will also be freely available to researchers, in conjunction with other information about donors such as their medical history. These data will enrich the research that is currently happening in this area and there has the potential to shed light on the very early signs of dementia.  

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