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

Today we announced that a subset of participants of the UK’s longest-running cohort student, the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, are taking part in a new study about the onset of dementia. Here Laura Phipps, from co-funder of the study Alzheimer’s Research UK, explains how such well-studied people could be key to finding out why people develop dementia. 

Prof Nick Fox and Dr Jon Schott

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 (Image copyright: Alzheimer’s Research UK)

OK, so they won’t necessarily need to be in the scanner on their birthday (perhaps too much to ask!) but the group were all born in the same week in March 1946. And 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 the 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.

Thanks to a huge £5m funding boost from Alzheimer’s Research UK, Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation, the MRC’s 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 clinicians, epidemiologists, statisticians, geneticists and brain imaging experts at the UCL Dementia Research Centre in London.

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 make this possible.

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 memory and thinking assessments.

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 insights 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.

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.

Roger, a member of the MRC National Survey for Health and Development, said:

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

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.

Laura Phipps

This blog post was originally posted on the Alzheimer’s Research UK blog.

Are you interested in taking part in research? Now you can! Find out more about Join Dementia Research – a national initiative to enable you to take part in studies in your area.

 

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