€1 million Science Foundation Ireland Funding for Research into Human Memory and Alzheimer’s disease

Posted on: 27 April 2009

Science Foundation Ireland has allocated €1million in funding to a research programme on the human memory and Alzheimer’s disease led by Professor of Psychiatry, Harald Hampel and his research group at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience and the Adelaide and Meath Hospital, incorporating the National Children’s Hospital (AMNCH) at Tallaght. Professor Hampel and his team have established a major international research programme to develop innovative imaging technology for the early detection and prediction of Alzheimer’s disease. The successful establishment of this programme in Ireland is key to understanding brain mechanisms involved in the breakdown of cognitive abilities in Alzheimer’s disease. The results of the project are expected to pave the way for neuroimaging based diagnostic markers for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.

How memory is influenced by changes in the structural integrity and function of the brain will be a primary focus of the research. Modern imaging techniques called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) that detect how the brain is “wired”, i.e. the anatomical white matter connections between the different grey matter brain structures, will be used to trace early changes in the brain’s networks of different brain regions. The coordinated activation within a brain network is considered key for normal cognitive function. Evidence from recent studies suggests that it is the integrity of the brain network that is one of the first brain functions affected in Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers will focus on changes in neuroanatomical connections and functions in the brain which occur in Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment in dementia.

Commenting on the significance of the research, Professor Hampel said: “A better understanding of normal brain function and Alzheimer’s disease could lead to future more effective and earlier diagnosis techniques and treatment strategy options for patients.”

Current drugs available for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease are symptomatic and do not combat the disease.  There is a large number of drug compounds currently being tested for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease which have the potential of leading to the prevention, delay, modification of progression or cure of the disease.  To meet this goal, the development of biomarkers is needed for diagnosis, disease progression, and therapeutic effects.

Professor Harald Hampel and his team have completed an initial study on the effects of galantamine on mild Alzheimer’s disease patients, using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activation changes due to the drug’s effects.  The team have just published their discovery of potential biomarkers for the measurement of therapeutic effects in the brain in patients with Alzheimer’s disease in the leading pharmacological publication, the  Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology this month (April 2009). Galantamine is one of the currently approved drugs for the symptomatic treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.  In this study it was found that a simple test of visual perception could be a biomarker for the prediction of therapeutic effects. Thus this possible biomarker may have the potential of measuring a drug treatment’s effectiveness and could be used in testing new drug compounds developed for Alzheimer’s disease. Further testing of this possible biomarker is required before use in large scale studies.

For Ireland, the projected increase of Alzheimer’s disease patients will be approximately 43% within the next 20 years, entailing a large increase in costs for management, treatment and care of patients with Alzheimer’s disease as well as their caregivers. Based on estimates in the year 2000, a calculated number of at least 30,000 patients with dementia are living in Ireland, with the annual costs of treatment of these patients accruing to about €474 million (National Council on Aging and Older People, 2000, National University of Ireland). In addition to treatment and health costs, Alzheimer’s disease also brings significant burdens on the family and social environment of the patients and on society in general mainly due to lost productivity of patients and caregivers.  Thus by gaining more insight into the disease, one may be able to develop treatment strategies for amelioration of the disease and for earlier diagnosis.

In addition, the techniques that are used in this project could be applied not only to other neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric disorders but also to investigate for example age-related changes such as normal ageing and the development of the brain in children.

The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) grant for the research programme enables internationally competitive, high-end technology and neuroscience research that is also involved in key international expert collaborations. This research team includes clinical and experimental neuroscientists and PhD students. The team is based at the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, and at the Adelaide and Meath Hospital incorporating the National Children’s Hospital. The collaborators in Trinity College Dublin are Drs Arun Bokde, Michael Ewers and Christian Kerskens and Professors Desmond O’Neill and Greg Swanwick. The external international collaborators are Dr Barry Horwitz of the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, Professor Susumi Mori of John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, USA, and Professor Stefan Teipel of the University of   Rostock, Germany.  The proposed programme will act as a unique point of focus for innovation and discovery in neuroscience nationally and internationally in a highly relevant key area.

The research programme of Professor Hampel is further supported by the Health Service Executive (HSE), the Adelaide and Meath Hospital incorporating the National Children’s Hospital (AMNCH) and the Health Research Board (HRB) of Ireland.