Dementia – a group of neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s disease and vascular dementia – is a common condition that affects over 800,000 people in the UK. This number is expected to rise to one million by 2025 and two million by 2051.
UCL research is world-leading in efforts to diagnose, treat, care for and prevent dementia. Researchers at UCL are continuing to make great advances in this area and are at the forefront of impactful studies and trials currently ongoing in the world today.
Here are a few of the projects and initiatives led by UCL academics and researchers improving our knowledge of dementia and working towards creating healthier futures.
Lifestyle changes could prevent a third of dementia cases
A recent report led by Professor Gill Livingston (UCL Psychiatry) revealed that more than a third of the world’s dementia cases could potentially be prevented by tackling nine lifestyle factors that increase an individual’s risk of experiencing cognitive collapse later in life.
Prof Livingston said: “Although dementia is diagnosed in later life, the brain changes usually begin to develop years before, with risk factors for developing the disease occurring throughout life, not just in old age. We believe that a broader approach to prevention of dementia which reflects these changing risk factors will benefit our ageing societies and help to prevent the rising number of dementia cases globally.”
These factors range from hearing loss to poor education and physical inactivity. Taking proactive measures to improve brain health throughout life by targeting these risk factors, such as continuing education in early life, reducing hearing loss in mid-life and reducing smoking in later life, could prevent one in three cases of dementia.
UCL home to £250m national Dementia Research Institute
UCL beat Oxford, Cambridge and other leading universities in a bid to host the headquarters of the £250m UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI). The UK DRI is jointly funded by the Medical Research Council in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. The institute will ultimately operate across a number of UK locations, with its ‘Hub’ to be based at UCL.
The UK DRI aims to transform dementia research by broadening the scope of its research area and facilitating a more interdisciplinary approach to the study of dementia. The institute will connect researchers working across different disciplines, including those outside of the dementias field, and attract leading experts from around the world to the UK.
UCL President and Provost Professor Michael Arthur said: “Our vision for a DRI is a truly national asset that facilitates exchanges of ideas, people and resources between groups, disciplines and centres. A UCL DRI Hub will enable and support all DRI centres to deliver on the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge 2020 and internationally on the G8 Dementia Summit Declaration.”
Professor Bart De Strooper, Director UK DRI at UCL, added: “Right now, our understanding of these diseases is not dissimilar to what we knew, or thought we knew, about cancer several decades ago. What we need is a paradigm shift in the way we think about dementias. Just as we realised that a whole range of factors is responsible for how cancers occur and progress in an individual, we now need to take a more holistic view of dementia and accept that a wide range of approaches may be needed in order to be successful. We have a huge amount of discovery science to do – and I want to see real surprises.”
Groundbreaking dementia research, Virtual Reality and innovative collaboration
Dr Hugo Spiers (UCL Experimental Psychology), in collaboration with a range of partners including ETH Zurich, created award winning mobile game, Sea Hero Quest (SHQ) to support scientists currently working towards finding a cure for dementia. SHQ records users’ sense of direction to determine how navigational skills decline with age.
By playing SHQ for two minutes, users generate the same amount of data that scientists would take five hours to collect in similar lab-based research. Researchers from UCL and the University of East Anglia will use this data to create the world’s largest benchmark of how humans navigate, which will then go on to become a critical diagnostic tool for dementia in the future.
The game has been downloaded over 2.7million times and played in every country in the world. It is currently the biggest dementia study in history, and has collected an amount of data that would have taken over 9,000 years to acquire in a traditional lab setting.
Speaking on the findings, Dr Spiers said: “The findings the game is yielding have enormous potential to support vital developments in dementia research. The ability to diagnose dementia at early stages, well before patients exhibit any signs of general memory loss, would be a milestone.
UK’s first non-medical therapy for dementia
Dr Aimee Spector (UCL Psychology) directs the International Cognitive Stimulation Therapy centre at UCL. Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST) is an evidence-based therapy for people with dementia, which has changed dementia care within the UK and worldwide.
UK Government NICE guidance on the management of dementia recommend the use of group Cognitive Stimulation for people with mild to moderate dementia, irrespective of drug treatments received. CST is currently the only non-medical therapy endorsed by UK government guidelines for the cognitive symptoms of dementia.
The International CST centre aims to share information and encourage collaboration between professionals and consumers internationally. In addition to various services, it also hosts annual CST conferences to facilitate the proliferation of knowledge and empower practicing health professionals working with dementia patients.
The 2nd International CST Conference will be held in Hong Kong on 1-2 December 2017.
World-leading trials and research studies at the heart of UCL
The UCL Dementia Research Centre (UCL DRC) is a hub for clinical research into various forms of dementia. The DRC focuses on identifying and understanding the disease processes that cause dementia, the factors that influence these disease processes, and how best to support people with dementia and their families.
In addition to research, the UCL DRC also provides a cognitive disorders clinic within the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.
There are currently a number of clinical trials and studies ongoing at the UCL DRC, to find out more and get involved, visit the UCL DRC website.
Free online course on dementia
UCL also offers a free online course for anyone interested in dementia, its effects on people and the brain. The four-week (two hours a week) course provides a unique insight into dementia through the stories, symptoms and science behind for less common diagnoses. Learn more and register your interest for the next enrolment.