Scotland Doctoral Training Centre

Understanding more about the role that reduced blood flow to the brain plays in Alzheimer's disease 

Lead investigator: Professor Karen Horsburgh (University of Edinburgh)
Co-investigators: Professor Bettina Platt (University of Aberdeen), Professor Frank Gunn-Moore (University of St Andrews), Professor Mike Ashford (University of Dundee).
Grant type: Doctoral Training Centre
Amount: £346,000
Scientific title: Metabolic and vascular contributors to dementia

Why did we fund this? Comments from our Research Network:

'A clearly defined proposal with a strong theme and with all the individual projects feeding into the main theme.'

'Fantastic to see co-operation with 4 different universities. Role model for others?'

'This proposal has the potential to cast considerable light on an inter-related array of causes and possible beneficial interventions in dementia.'

What is a Doctoral Training Centre? 

Alzheimer's Society Doctoral Training Centres (DTC) aim to create a cluster of PhD students and clinical fellows working on themed area of dementia research. In addition to generating new knowledge on the theme, the DTCs will also provide support and training to develop the next generation of dementia research leaders.  

What do we already know?

Causes and risk factors for Alzheimer's disease are not fully understood but evidence indicates that changes in the vascular system supplying blood to the brain may be an early trigger in the development of Alzheimer's disease and cause memory loss.

To function properly, brain cells need a healthy supply of blood and nutrients such as oxygen delivered through a network of blood vessels called the vascular system. Blood supply to the brain can often be disrupted as a result of underlying conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure). There is now a major concern that modern lifestyle factors may add to the growing number of cases of dementia with reports that poor diet (high fat and calorie intake) and obesity accelerate a decline in memory abilities. Poor diet and obesity can lead to disorders such as diabetes and hypertension which may also increase the risk of dementia.

Considerable evidence now indicates that vascular dysfunction is a major feature of Alzheimer's disease and could impact on poor memory and brain cell loss. There is now known to be overlap between vascular disease, which is caused by low blood flow, and Alzheimer's disease.

However, it has been very difficult to study this as in humans there are often several different factors present including ageing, genetic factors, blood pressure changes, high cholesterol and diabetes that may all influence the blood vessel function in the brain and impair memory systems of the brain.

As well as affecting blood flow directly, it is thought that factors such as high blood pressure may also damage a system called the neurovascular unit; this is made of blood vessels and surrounding brain cells, certain types of which are important for controlling the environment in the brain, including ensuring that there is sufficient blood flow, oxygen and nutrients. Damage to this neurovascular unit could mean that brain cells don't get the supplies that they need, and could die.

What will the projects in this Doctoral Training Centre investigate?

The projects within this DTC will investigate different aspects of the relationship between blood flow and the changes within the brain that cause Alzheimer's disease; some will investigate the role of diet and other lifestyle factors in regulating blood flow to the brain, some will investigate the changes within the brain that a reduced blood flow causes in detail, and others will look specifically at the effects of this in a mouse model that is already predisposed to developing Alzheimer's disease as a result of its genes. Other projects will investigate whether drugs thought to combat some of the effects of reduced blood flow work in these models.

Combined, these investigations will allow the researchers within the DTC to build up a much more comprehensive picture of the effects of lifestyle and other factors affecting blood flow on the cells within our brains. Hopefully, with this increased knowledge, we will be able to better understand ways to reduce the risk of developing dementia as well as the researchers identifying key components that can be targeted with drug treatments to stop the development or treat dementia.

As part of this DTC, Alzheimer's Society have supported four PhD studentships; the universities that form the collaboration have committed to funding a further four to strengthen the research findings from the DTC and to train more early-career researchers in dementia research.

How will this benefit people affected by dementia?

Understanding more about the causes of Alzheimer's disease and ways to prevent it from developing, either through lifestyle changes or drug treatments, is incredibly important in order to reduce the number of people living with the condition.

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