Louise Walker, Research Communications Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, looks back on dementia research in 2017.
This time last year, I wrote about what 2017 might hold for dementia research. There was excitement for the Dementia Research Institute, we were looking forward to seeing advances in care research and predicted that this year we’d find out more about the Alzheimer’s hallmark protein tau. So how accurate was I? Well, the world of research is a hard one to predict but even so I think I’m getting quite good with a crystal ball.
The UK Dementia Research Institute gets underway
We announced the establishment of the groundbreaking UK Dementia Research Institute in 2016 along with our partners the Medical Research Council and Alzheimer’s Research UK.
In April 2017, we were excited to reveal the locations of the six centres that will form the institute. The hub is at UCL and the other centres are at King’s College London, Cardiff University, the University of Cambridge, Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh. Each centre is being overseen by amazing researchers with innovative ideas and the first programmes of work have been announced. Some of the projects are already underway.
Also just announced in December, the UK Dementia Research Institute is also seeking an Associate Director to lead the institute’s Care & Technology programme. This innovative £20 million programme is expected to use science and technology to significantly improve the quality of life for people affected by dementia
Tau structure uncovered
We did indeed find out more about the tau protein this year. Researchers at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology discovered the structure of the tau protein at the microscopic level. This is important because it means that researchers can identify areas of the protein that could be targets for future treatments. As Alzheimer’s Society’s Head of Research James Pickett says, this finding ‘could take us into a new era of drug design.’
Revolutionising dementia care
Research into a cure for dementia is very important, but we also need to make sure that people living with dementia today are receiving the best quality of care. With this in mind, in 2017 Alzheimer’s Society established the first three ‘Centres of Excellence’, which will bring together expert researchers to tackle the most pressing areas of need in dementia care.
- Professor Louise Robinson will lead a centre at the University of Newcastle and it will address how we can better support people after a diagnosis
- Dr Claudia Cooper will establish a centre at University College London to help people with dementia to live more independently at home
- Professor Linda Clare at the University of Exeter will build on the existing IDEAL project to understand how to help people to live well with dementia.
Shedding a light on sport, concussion and dementia
The issue of the long-term consequences of head injury in sport really came into the spotlight in 2017. Reports appeared frequently in the news about the fact that many former footballers – including some from the beloved England 1966 World Cup Squad – were living with dementia. A paper identifying signs of dementia in the brains of former footballers also caught the media’s attention.
This increased interest led to questions about whether heading footballs – particularly the heavy, leather ones used in the 1960s – could increase risk of dementia. In light of these questions, Alzheimer’s Society held a roundtable with head injury and dementia experts from across the UK. What became clear was that there is a need for more research to be done in this area as currently there is little in the way of good quality evidence. It is important to understand more so that people can play sport as safely as possible, especially as evidence shows that physical activity is one of the best things you can do to reduce risk of dementia.
Great results for Alzheimer’s Society researchers
Our funding was involved in a number of exciting findings this year. A project that we co-funded has uncovered a new potential pathway in Alzheimer’s disease that could be targeted by existing drugs. We also partly funded a report for the Lancet Commission that did an indepth analysis of existing studies in dementia risk, finding that over a third of cases of dementia could be prevented by changes to lifestyle. One of our research fellows also identified two new genes that were linked to dementia risk.
All in all, 2017 has been an excellent year for establishing exciting new initiatives, and we have made important steps forward in our understanding of some of the causes and risk factors for dementia.
- Read our predictions for 2018 in dementia research