In the past few years, we’ve seen increases in government funding for dementia research and as a charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK is funding more than we’ve ever been able to. There is an agreement from senior leaders across the world that dementia is a huge medical challenge that we need to tackle head on. We’re now seeing researchers in the UK working together with scientists across the globe to take on ambitious projects to uncover more about the diseases that cause dementia.
But dementia is a hard nut to crack. It has some unique challenges that make it one of the most difficult conditions to study. Can you think of ways to overcome these barriers?
Dementia isn’t a single disease but can be caused by different diseases such as Alzheimer’s or dementia with Lewy bodies. These diseases affect the brain in different ways and are drive by different changes in the brain so they all need to be studied separately. Luckily, the UK is home to some of the world’s best scientists, particularly in frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies.
The brain is the most complex living structure in the known universe and it’s locked away inside the skull where we can’t easily see what’s happening to it. Researchers are working hard to develop new ways to study what’s happening inside the brain in living people through state-of-the-art brain scans or molecular clues in someone’s blood.
There is an extralayer of protection around the brain called the blood brain barrier. This barrier is great at stopping infections from getting to the brain, but it can also stop medicines from reaching the brain too. Researchers are using a mixture of ingenious biology and complex chemistry to design medicines that can side-step this protection mechanism and reach the brain.
Even a single disease like Alzheimer’s is likely to involve changes in many processes controlling a wide range of biological systems. The way that these processes interact in Alzheimer’s disease is very complicated and scientists don’t yet fully understand it. Trying to tease apart all of the changes happening in the brain in a disease like Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest challenges researchers face. Some scientists are using advanced computers to study all of these changes and how they might affect each other.
In the past, a lot of people thought that dementia was a normal part of old age. We now know that this is not true – people can live to over a hundred and still not develop dementia. Because dementia wasn’t recognised as being caused by diseases not as much money has been spent on researching dementia compared to other conditions. Thankfully, this is changing now.
Want to learn more about the different approaches scientists are using to unravel the complexities of dementia? Find out more in the next section.