utilities

Would you spend your 70th birthday in a brain scanner?

Dr Laura PhippsKirsty MaraisClaire LucasRobin BrisbourneKaty StubbsEd PinchesGlyn Morris

That’s a question that’s been asked to members of the UK’s longest-running birth cohort study. OK, so technically they won’t necessarily need to be in the scanner on their birthday (perhaps too much to ask!) but all of the group were born in the same week in March 1946. Now they’re approaching the big 7-0, they’re giving back a unique gift to research by agreeing to take part in a brain imaging study to reveal important insights into dementia.

The volunteers, all members of the Medical Research Council (MRC) National Survey of Health and Development, have been contributing to research since they were born. This incredible group of people have had regular assessments as birthdays have come and gone, to help researchers at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL understand more about the impact of life on health. You can learn more about the National Survey of Health and Development by watching this video, created by the MRC.

Thanks to a huge £5m funding boost from Alzheimer’s Research UK, Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, MRC Dementias Platform UK and the Wolfson Foundation, 500 study members are being invited to take part in a state-of-the-art brain imaging study led by a team of expert clinicians, epidemiologists, statisticians, geneticists and brain imaging experts at the UCL Dementia Research Centre in London.

Prof Nick Fox (left) and Dr Jon Schott (right) at the Dementia Research Centre at UCL will lead the neuroscience sub-study with Prof Marcus Richards of the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing.

Prof Nick Fox (left) and Dr Jon Schott (right) at the Dementia Research Centre at UCL will lead the neuroscience sub-study with Prof Marcus Richards of the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing.

The study is an important strategic project for Alzheimer’s Research UK and a part of our ambitious Research Strategy to defeat dementia. We’re incredibly proud to be committing £3m of our money towards this valuable project and grateful to the donors that can make this possible.

For all the research we do, what really matters to me is making progress towards finding better treatments. These are exciting times. I have never seen such a concerted effort to harness what we know, to understand the diseases causing dementia and diagnose them before the symptoms start to show – at the time when treatments are most likely to prove effective – Prof Nick Fox.

The study aims to gain important insights into early changes in the brain in diseases like Alzheimer’s compared to normal ageing. The team will use the latest PET scanning techniques to look for signs of the hallmark Alzheimer’s protein, amyloid, in the brain, as well as studying MRI scans to see structural and functional changes in the brain. They will examine how these brain images relate to the volunteers’ performance on memory and thinking assessments.

Below: Listen to a Q&A with the researchers from our Insight 46 launch event last week to hear more about the study and the difference it can make to research.

The neuroscience research team, led by Dr Jon Schott, Prof Nick Fox, and Prof Marcus Richards, will also collect blood samples from the volunteers to search for indicators of early brain changes in the blood.

The study has the potential to reveal important insight into the diseases that cause dementia, and to influence many areas of dementia research. By characterising how and when these diseases start to develop in the brain, the team can better understand the molecular processes driving dementia as well as closing in on a critical window for future clinical trials to take place to have the best chance of success.

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My main feelings about being part of the Survey are curiosity and a bit of pride. If, in our backgrounds, there is a ‘why’ for dementia, a reason some of us develop the condition and others don’t, we have to find it. We must do all we can, I think – and come together to beat it – Roger, a member of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development

Not only that, but the team can harness the medical and life history data collected about the volunteers over their lives to start to tease apart why some volunteers may go on to develop dementia and others not. Understanding the lifelong risk factors for dementia is no easy task but studying people over their whole lives presents an unparalleled opportunity to gain this important knowledge.

The volunteers have already started to have their first scans and we’ll be keeping you up-to-date with the latest developments in this pioneering five-year study.

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