Dementia Research Leaders: Emma Sigfridsson and Jennie Gabriel

Introducing Emma Sigfridsson and Jennie Gabriel, Scotland Doctoral Training Centre students. They are part of our Dementia Research Leaders programme that supports people from biomedical, clinical and social science backgrounds.

What are your names and where are you studying?

Jennie: I'm Jennie Gabriel. I'm a PhD student studying the association between obesity and Alzheimer's disease at the University of Dundee.

Emma: And my name is Emma Sigfridsson and I am currently doing my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. We are both part of Alzheimer's Society's Scotland Doctoral Training Centre.

Doctoral Training Centre students Emma and Jennie

Emma Sigfridsson (left) and Jennie Gabriel (right)

What are you researching?

Jennie: My research focuses around a protein that is involved in the development of Alzheimer's disease, called BACE1. I study the role that BACE1 plays in regulating a hormone called Leptin. Leptin controls appetite and energy balance by signalling in the brain but also plays a role in forming memories. Leptin signalling doesn't work properly in Alzheimer's disease so I am studying the associations between diet and Leptin signalling in the brain to try to identify whether problems with leptin signalling could be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. 

Emma: The focus of our lab is to understand how reduced blood flow to the brain leads to dementia. Our brains rely on a constant supply of blood to produce energy to fuel all its complicated functions. A by-product of this process is something called reactive oxygen species, which are harmful when not swiftly cleared by antioxidants. Studies have shown an increase of these harmful molecules in vascular dementia and Alzheimer's disease. I am therefore investigating the effects of increasing the brain's own antioxidant defences on memory and learning to combat the effects of reduced brain blood flow.

How will your research help people affected by dementia?

Emma: By increasing the understanding of dementia at the basic scientific level, we aim to help people learn know how to keep their brain healthy in midlife to reduce their risk of the condition. We also hope to identify targets for drugs that may halt the progression of dementia. 

Jennie: Although we are becoming ever more aware of the processes involved in Alzheimer's disease progression, we still know little about what causes the disease to develop. As onset is likely to occur many years before symptoms start to show, it is important for us to understand what happens in these earliest stages. By studying diet and energy regulation we hope to understand a little more about the role this plays and determine whether this is an important contributor to progression of Alzheimer's disease.

What's it like being part of an Alzheimer's Society Doctoral Training Centre?

Jennie: The level of support within the centre is excellent. All of the students have regular contact to discuss our research and we can each share our experiences to help one another. We also have the added support of all of the supervisors and access to more resources throughout all four of the universities that make up the centre. It allows us to approach our research from more angles than would have been possible from just one institute. 

Emma: It's great! The expertise that can be shared across the different Universities is invaluable and it is really nice having students at the same stage in their academic career for scientific as well as personal discussion.

What is your favourite thing about your research?

Jennie: The satisfaction of watching your project progress. When your hard work becomes real data that means something is an amazing feeling.

Emma: The experimental techniques that are available to us are fantastic and the level of detail of biological information that we are able to obtain never ceases to amaze me. That sense of marvel in combination with working out the optimal way of analysing something to answer an important question is unbeatable.

... And your least favourite?

Emma: Spending days, weeks or sometimes months optimising techniques!

Jennie: When something isn't working, we have to repeat an experiment over and over to get the conditions right to work. It can be very frustrating but is rewarding when it finally comes together.

Why did you decide to do a PhD in dementia research?

Jennie: I was inspired by a lecture during my undergraduate degree on BACE1 and the amyloid hypothesis. I was fascinated with the biochemistry of the disease and astonished that there is so little we know or can do to treat AD at the moment. 

Emma: Family history played a part, however, the lack of a treatment that can affect the underlying disease processes demands more efforts be directed towards dementia research and I wanted to be a part of that. There has long been a lack of tools available for studying diseases of the brain, but I think with more sophisticated techniques we will be able to make huge advances in the next couple of years.

What's the best thing about doing research in Scotland? 

Emma: The neuroscience community in Edinburgh as well as the rest of Scotland is large and progressive. The talent and expertise in the area is inspiring and provides great opportunity for interesting collaboration. And let's not forget how beautiful it is!

What is the most exciting thing you've heard about in dementia research recently?

Emma: There was a study recently that found speaking two languages protects against Alzheimer's disease. On a very personal note (as a Swedish native) I found this very exciting and it gave me a nice push to keep on top of both my languages.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Jennie: I enjoy keeping active. I spend weekends at the gym or out hillwalking - making the most of the beautiful Scottish countryside.

Emma: I find exercising a great way to wind down and deal with the stress and pressure that comes with doing a PhD; I really enjoy running, yoga and weights. I also love cooking and crafty activities like knitting, crocheting and sewing which nicely fills up my spare time

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