£1.75M to explore gene’s role in dementia risk

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The Medical Research Council (MRC) has awarded scientists at Cardiff, Bristol and Oxford universities a £1.75 million grant to study how a specific genetic variant known to increase risk for dementia affects the brain.

Dementia costs the UK economy an estimated £24 billion annually. If research can identify methods to delay the start of dementia by five years, this cost could be halved.

The researchers – from Cardiff, Bristol and Oxford universities – are combining their expertise to study how patterns of brain structure and activity in early adulthood might be linked to increased risk of dementia in later life.

Working with Bristol University’s birth cohort, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), they will ask whether healthy adults with APOE-e4, a genetic variant associated with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, show altered patterns of brain activity and connectivity in key brain circuits involved in spatial navigation and memory.

Using powerful new scanners recently installed at Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) the researchers are able to assess brain structure and function in unprecedented levels of detail.

Previous research by the team has demonstrated that carriers of APOE-e4 show specific differences in brain activity (compared to non-carriers) when they have to tell apart or remember different views of a scene or spatial environment. These changes are seen in the same brain regions affected early on in Alzheimer’s disease. By applying these sensitive cognitive tests in ALSPAC participants, researchers will be able to ask how profiles of physical and mental activity, from birth to young adulthood, affects APOE-e4’s influence on brain activity during these tasks.

Principal investigator of the study, Professor Kim Graham from Cardiff University, said: “Understanding how risk factors for dementia lead to later life memory loss is critical to developing new therapies and preventative approaches for dementia.

“By collaborating with Bristol and Oxford universities, and using new state-of-the-art neuroimaging in a unique birth cohort, we hope to understand the ways in which brain activity and structure is influenced by APOE-e4. This information will generate sensitive cognitive tests and markers of brain function able to identify individuals at increased risk for dementia many years prior to the onset of memory difficulties.”

Lynn Molloy, executive director of ALSPAC, added: “We are delighted to be collaborating with Professor Graham and colleagues on this exciting new study. This remarkable, intensely studied group of study participants are now entering their mid-twenties and this study will provide new insights into how brain changes at this age might be linked to increased dementia in later life.”

NB Please note that this news article has been reposted from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children website.