One of the 49 research projects funded in the latest $55.5 million Health Research Council grants round has recruited 25 members of a family, whose members carry a genetic mutation that is known to cause frontotemporal dementia, in a longitudinal study aiming to identify the earliest signs of dementia.

The University of Auckland project is thought to be the world’s largest multi-generational study into this type of dementia.

“Imagine you have been diagnosed with dementia. You’re told that it will progressively and irreversibly deprive you of your ability to think, your personality, and your independence,” says lead investigator Associate Professor Maurice Curtis.

“Now imagine your doctor tells you that you could have been treated if you were diagnosed 10 years earlier, but the damage to your brain now is too extensive. This is the problem we are trying to solve.”

By assessing blood tests taken annually and measuring ongoing changes in thinking and sense of smell, this longitudinal study aims to compare changes that occur between members of the family who carry the gene and those who don’t.

“This will allow us to measure potential markers of dementia up to 30 years before expected clinical onset, which could then make early intervention possible,” says Professor Curtis.

“We are focusing on non-invasive, cost-effective diagnostic markers, in the hope that they could one day be used widely as a screening tool for pre-clinical dementia.”

In another memory and mind project, Professor Wickliffe Abraham from the University of Otago aims to find the fundamental mechanisms that disrupt brain ‘plasticity’ and affect our ability to learn and remember things.

“The ability to form memories is fundamental to all mental abilities, and there are profound consequences when memory function is impaired, including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and traumatic brain injury,” he says.

His team will be looking into the role of astrocytes, cells that support and help the function of nerve cells in the brain.

“In the past 10 to 15 years, astrocytes and how they work together with the nerve cells has become a real hot topic,” says Professor Abraham. “Under normal conditions, they may be involved in protecting memories from interference, but in the presence of disease they may actually generate memory deficits.”

The study could make a significant contribution to the growing international field of astrocyte biology and our understanding of how memory mechanisms are regulated.

“Understanding these processes may help identify new targets for therapeutic interventions to rescue diseased memory and cognition,” he says.

The HRC’s director of Research Investments and Contracts, Dr Vernon Choy, says this year’s project proposals once again prove that New Zealand researchers are leading the way in identifying novel solutions to difficult problems.

“The projects we’ve funded this year span across public health, biomedical research, Māori and Pacific health. All of them delve into important health issues, and many pose questions that affect us all in some way – they really do have the potential to improve the lives of all New Zealanders.”

For the full list of project grant recipients, and to read lay summaries of the research projects (from Monday 18 June) visit www.hrc.govt.nz/funding-opportunities/recipients and filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Projects’ and ‘2018’.

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