How are changes to blood flow to the brain linked to memory and thinking problems?

Research project: Understanding the relationship between cerebrovascular physiology, chronic vascular injury to the brain and cognitive decline

Lead Investigator: Dr Alastair Webb

  • Institution: University of Oxford
  • Grant type: Biomedical
  • Duration: 36 months
  • Amount: £212,344.82

Why did we fund this research?

Comments from our Research Network volunteers:

‘This is a strong application from an experienced team. The project clearly builds on previous research, and has clear objectives and a sound methodology’. 

Project summary

Small vessel disease is an underlying cause of vascular dementia, but the reasons why it occurs are unclear. This study will look at changes to the blood flow as a cause of small vessel disease and explore its link with thinking and memory problems and dementia. 

The background

Small vessel disease is a condition where small blood vessels in the brain are damaged. Injury to the small blood vessels is common with age, but it is also thought to be the cause of up to 40% of cases of dementia. 

Small vessel disease appears to be linked with changes in the blood flow to the brain, but the reasons why the damage occurs are unclear.

Some evidence links small vessel disease to a stiffening of blood vessels close to the heart, resulting in abnormal blood pulsation once it reaches the brain.

Other studies suggested it is caused by injuries to other areas of the body that causes higher blood pressure that damages vessels in the brain. 

So far, there are only a limited number of studies looking at changes in the blood flow to the brain. There is very little understanding of how these changes progress over time or how they are related to changes in memory and thinking.

We need to understand more about the underlying causes of small vessel disease – so we can ultimately understand why it may lead to vascular dementia.

What does this project involve?

The research team are addressing the lack of understanding. First, they will measure the relationships between stiff blood vessels, high blood pressure and cognitive problems in over 500,000 healthy, middle-aged and elderly people in the UK.

Around 25,000 of these people also underwent brain scans, so the research team will also be able to assess the links between blood vessel stiffness and small vessel disease. 

Secondly, they will look at an ongoing study of 1,000 people who have recently had strokes and how their blood vessels have changed over time. This will help to the researchers to determine if stiffening of blood vessels happen before the development of memory and thinking problems and if stiffening of the blood vessels can predict these problems.

How will this project help people with dementia?

Small vessels disease is known to be linked to dementia, but its causes are not clear. As a result, there are no specific treatments available to prevent it or stop it’s progression over time.

This study will help to determine what may cause small vessel disease that leads to memory and thinking problems and ultimately dementia.

This study is a great opportunity to improve our understanding of an underlying cause of dementia and could bring potential new therapies to light. 

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