Dementia research breaks new ground

A research team led by Newcastle University’s Professor Alan Thomas, an expert in old age psychiatry at the Institute for Ageing and Vitality, will begin a 5 year project thanks to a £500,000 investment from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB), a condition that affects around 130,000 people in the UK, accounting for approximately 10% of all cases of dementia, is frequently under-diagnosed. The subtle nature of the symptoms which include hallucinations, alertness and attention, make accurate and timely diagnosis challenging.

Professor Thomas will aim to help combat this consistent pattern of mistaken diagnosis by investigating and developing new methods of picking up on the progressive disease in its early stages. With the use of the grant, the study will look into the possibility of using heart scans, rather than focusing on the study of the brain, as is common in dementia research.

The toxic protein signals the presence of DLB and can affect nerve cells all around the body. Through examining the disruption of communication in the heart, the team could establish a link to nerve damage in the brain, potentially resulting in a quicker route to treatment than is currently achievable. Dr Emma O’Brien, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, said, “The diagnostic approach will allow people to enter future clinical trials at a time when they are most likely to benefit from new treatments”.

“3500 people in the region are living with a form of dementia”

The ‘pioneering project’ will unite Newcastle Hospitals and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trusts with Newcastle University, being carried out at the collaborative Campus for Ageing and Vitality. There are plans to begin trialling the scan with people suffering from Mild Cognitive Impairment, which holds similar symptoms to and can sometimes go on to develop into Dementia.

Dr O’Brien also noted, “Improved diagnostic accuracy will enable more tailored support networks to be put in place”. The information which new tests could provide to patients would allow doctors to give better guidance, as well as access to all-important services. The latter is especially vital, as both drug and non-drug approaches are used to treat the condition, proving essential in maximising a person’s quality of life. This would directly positively impact DLB sufferers and their families, as there is presently no cure. The North East itself could see a great improvement, particularly, as almost 35,000 people in the region are living with a form of Dementia, including Dementia with Lewy bodies.

The important work carried out during the research project will be an example of the ‘world class services’ which are delivered by the Newcastle Academic Health Partners, which Alzheimer’s Research UK is ‘pleased to be able to support.’

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