Short-term memory: A sensitive cognitive marker for Alzheimer's disease?

Lead researcher: Dr Mario Parra
Institution: Heriot-Watt University
Grant type: Fellowship
Duration: 3 years
Amount funded: £187,116
Scientific title: Short-term memory binding: A sensitive cognitive marker for Alzheimer's disease 

Why did we fund this research? Comments from members of our Research Network.

'The lack of early diagnosis can be distressing for [people with dementia] and carers, apart from the practical benefits which may accrue from early intervention. GPs need such tools to deal with the increasing numbers of [people with] Alzheimer's disease.'

'A well-planned worthwhile proposal with potential valuable diagnostic benefits.'

'...this will add to the knowledge basis for early diagnosis. This could be of great value to GPs when patients worried about their decline in memory can be evaluated at an earlier stage in the disease progression.'

What do we already know?

There has been much work in the past focusing on a specific type of long term memory, and investigating how it is affected in Alzheimer's disease.

The problems with long-term memory that have been found in Alzheimer's disease are also found in normal ageing, as well as other types of dementia, and so changes in this are not specific to Alzheimer's disease. Changes in short-term memory in Alzheimer's disease have been less well investigated.

Dr Parra and his team at the University of Edinburgh have shown that a particular test of short-term memory can identify changes that are specific to Alzheimer's disease, as it is not affected during normal ageing or other conditions.

What does this project involve?

Dr Parra will conduct three distinct studies within the course of this research.

Study 1: will test the short-term memory of 80 people with amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI - people who are experiencing a deterioration of certain brain functions and abilities, including memory). People with MCI often go on to develop dementia. The study will also recruit 40 participants who do not have MCI for comparison.

All of these participants will have their short-term memory tested at the beginning of the study, and then twice more over three years to measure any changes.

Study 2: 20 of the participants with MCI from study 1, and 20 participants without MCI, will have their brains scanned with an fMRI, to look for differences in the structure and function of the brain.

fMRI scans can measure how the brain uses blood during certain tasks, and so can be used to measure specific differences in the way that the brain works. Short-term memory tests will be given to participants to see how their brain works during this test.

Study 3: will use 30 participants who have Alzheimer's disease, 30 participants who have a rare, genetic form of Alzheimer's disease and 60 participants who do not have Alzheimer's disease.

All of these participants will be given short-term memory tests, and any differences between their performance measured.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

Identifying differences between the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, healthy ageing and other types of dementia will provide a useful tool for more accurate diagnosis. This may allow people to receive a diagnosis, and so begin treatment, sooner.

Additionally, being able to identify people with Alzheimer's disease sooner may be of benefit to researchers when developing treatments that target the earlier stages of Alzheimer's disease.

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