One out of every three people born in 2017 will develop dementia unless we can find a cure. Dementia is our greatest medical challenge, with 850,000 people in the UK living with the condition, 40,000 of whom are under the age of 65.
Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading dementia research charity. The largest funder of dementia research in Europe, conducting world-class pioneering research to find better diagnoses, preventions and treatments for dementia.
They have established the UK’s only network of dementia research scientists, supporting over 1,200 researchers throughout the UK to make some of the most important dementia breakthroughs of the past 20 years.
This is a 12-month ground-breaking project to improve understanding of the changes in connectivity in the brain, helping to explain the complex symptoms of Dementia with Lewy Bodies - including hallucinations and difficulties in processing auditory input.
Dementia with Lewy Bodies (DLB) is a common cause of dementia, but remains poorly understood compared to conditions like Alzheimer’s disease (AD). People with DLB have very different symptoms to those with other dementias, including disturbing auditory and visual hallucinations. These symptoms are a major cause of distress to patients and their caregivers.
Furthermore, language expression and comprehension (i.e. high level processing of auditory input) is frequently disrupted in DLB. Part of this may be driven by the modular dissociation that we hypothesise occurs between language processing areas, executive/attention areas.
The brain works as one big machine made up of individual areas of speciality, allowing us to carry out everyday activities. All of the different brain areas work together to allow us to make sense of the world around us. The areas are connected so that information from all senses can be coordinated, understood and acted upon as appropriate.
DLB is thought to be a multi-module disease, meaning that it affects numerous brain areas and functions including hearing, vision, cognition, movement and memory. Changes in all of these functions accounts for the distressingly varied range of symptoms experienced by people living with DLB.
Dr Taylor’s team propose to investigate the Modular Dissociation Hypothesis of DLB. This idea suggests that in DLB, multiple brain modules are disconnected and fragmented, thus driving the onset of the variable symptoms in this disease.
The proposed hypothesis will be investigated with combined structural and functional MRI (sMRI and fMRI), which are able to measure dementia related alterations in the brain. These brain images will be combined with complex Graph Theory Analysis to study the function and structure of brain modules in DLB compared to normal brains. The study will also investigate the utility of the modular dissociation hypothesis as a way of delineating DLB from AD, which is a major challenge for doctors in the clinic.
This study will improve our understanding of the complex symptoms of DLB which will have significant implications for the design of future medicines for people living with DLB. For example, could auditory stimulation help to restore the pattern of brain module communication between auditory and frontal reasoning modules to normal levels? Can we develop drug treatments to delay the breakdown in communication between modules and slow the development of the disturbing disease symptoms? The proposed study will develop the neuroscientific methods and lay the foundations to answer these questions for future research work.
The bottom diagram shows the connections between Brain Regions attacked in DLB. If these connections were between the auditory module and the higher functioning frontal module then this may account for the auditory hallucinations in DLB, as the patient wouldn’t be able to rationalise the auditory input.
Dr Taylor is a Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Old Age Psychiatry. He has unique expertise combining neurophysiological and neuroimaging and their application to dementia populations, particularly the Lewy body dementias. Clinically, he leads a specialist and unique Lewy body disease clinic in Newcastle. This understanding of patient need combined with scientific expertise is unique and valuable in driving effective and clinically useful research.
Newcastle University itself is a world leader in dementia research and brain imaging, with access to unique clinical data for advanced dementia studies. The University has invested heavily in the development of new imaging infrastructures including a dementia dedicated brain scanning facility.
“Our new partnership with Hidden Hearing will help us to go even further. Hidden Hearing’s support is helping us to fund ground-breaking research to investigate how changes in the brain may be involved in auditory hallucinations that can be a symptom of dementia with Lewy bodies, helping inform new treatment approaches. With several studies having linked hearing loss to dementia, research to explore the reasons behind this link could offer vital understanding about the condition.”
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