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Sunday, 16 January 2022

We must not let one health crisis perpetuate another, says Alzheimer’s Research UK

EARLY career dementia researchers across the UK have received a one-million-pound funding boost from Alzheimer’s Research UK.

The announcement of this wave of new funding from the UK’s leading dementia research charity comes during Dementia Action Week this week. It is targeted to support researchers and studies that have been hit hardest by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A recent Alzheimer’s Research UK survey found that with the pandemic leading to a lack of funding opportunities, one in three dementia researchers are considering leaving the field. With the number of cancer researchers already outstripping dementia researchers 4-1 in the UK, there is an urgent need to safeguard against the potential loss of a generation of scientists.

Dementia, which is caused by physical diseases that attack the brain, can have a devasting impact on people’s lives. People with dementia have been particularly affected by COVID-19, with one-quarter of people who have died in the UK from COVID-19 also having dementia. Throughout the pandemic, the Dementia Research Infoline has supported people affected by dementia and their loved ones, providing information and support to those concerned about COVID-19, dementia, or simply to lend a listening ear.

Dementia Action Week is dedicated to raising awareness of dementia, encouraging people to join efforts to create a future free from the fear, harm, and heartbreak of the condition.

Scientists are making huge strides against dementia, and life-changing treatments for the diseases that cause the condition are in sight. But dementia research is not immune to the impacts of the pandemic.

The closure of labs delayed key experiments, and some vital research tools could not be maintained during the multiple lockdowns. Delays meant some experiments needed to start from the beginning when labs reopened with social distancing in place. Some early career researchers were not eligible for the furlough scheme, and while they could read about the latest research, analyse data, and write about their discoveries from home, crucially, they could not go into the lab to perform vital experiments.

To keep these studies going, the charity has stepped in with a COVID-19 support fund giving over £245,000 to 14 ongoing research projects, with the majority going to early career researchers.

Speaking about the support package, Director of Research from Alzheimer’s Research UK, Dr Susan Kohlhaas, said:

“The global response to COVID-19 has shown that with the backing of Government, the appropriate funding and will, research can change peoples’ lives. But we must not let one health crisis perpetuate another. Protecting ongoing dementia research is crucial. We owe it to our supporters, our scientists and all those affected by dementia to make sure we see results from the research projects we have committed to funding. With this extra support, we will see the completion of research studies, which many feared would not have been possible a year ago.”

The charity has also funded six new projects worth £920,000, specifically targeted to early career researchers, who have been most affected by a lack of funding opportunities caused by the pandemic. This funding will support research projects across the UK, including research at the Universities of Bristol, Oxford, Cardiff, and Newcastle as well as in London.

Dr Kohlhaas said:

“Thanks to the generosity of the public and the support from our partners over the last year, we are delighted to be in a position to be able to fund six new research projects. This funding will support a new generation of dementia researchers as they aim to establish their own careers and explore new questions in dementia research. Maintaining vital funds for early-career researchers means that we are able to support those most at risk of leaving research and continue to make the breakthroughs people with dementia and their loved ones deserve.”

One of the new projects focuses on sleep problems, which research has shown may worsen Alzheimer’s disease. Dr Jonathan Blackman, as part of a team at the University of Bristol, is exploring whether a chemical called dopamine, which occurs naturally in the brain, could help to break this negative cycle as it has already been shown to affect sleep and memory in healthy older people.

He will now test to see if the same happens for people with Alzheimer’s, also using a brand-new technology worn as a headband. Should this measure sleep as accurately as established techniques, it could be used in large-scale clinical trials with thousands of volunteers.

We must not let one health crisis perpetuate another, says Alzheimer's Research UK
Jonathan Blackman

Dr Blackman said:

“As an early career researcher, getting the backing of funders like Alzheimer’s Research UK is a real boost. COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people with dementia, so for early-career researchers like me who want to change the narrative when it comes to dementia, this funding is a really big opportunity.

“Funding research into sleep and dementia is another step to help unravel the complex relationship between the two. Ultimately larger clinical trials will be needed, and we will need to see more people get involved in dementia research if we are to take forward research findings from projects like this.”

Speaking about getting involved in research, Dr Kohlhaas from Alzheimer’s Research UK added:

“Dementia Action Week is not just about raising awareness but about taking action. We saw with COVID-19 that volunteers make a huge difference in accelerating research, and volunteers will be just as critical in our effort to make breakthroughs possible in dementia research.

“Our Dementia Research Infoline remains open to those wanting to find out more about this new sleep project, register their interest in taking part in other existing dementia studies or if they have any other questions about dementia. Our team have already handled over 25,000 enquiries since its inception and are here to help you. Ring us today on 0300 111 5111 or email us at infoline@alzheimersresearchuk.org.”

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