Scottish expert given £235,000 for dementia research

An expert researcher has been given almost a quarter of a million pounds to investigate how changes to the barrier between the blood supply and the brain contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr Fiona McLean, a neuroscientist based at Dundee University’s School of Medicine, works to understand Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia.

According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, the disease affects nearly one million people in the UK, including around 90,000 in Scotland alone.

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As part of a commitment from the charity to give £2m to 15 new projects across the country researching the disease, Dr McLean has received £235,000 for her work.

Alzheimer's research: Dr Fiona McLean
Pic: Dundee ACAlzheimer's research: Dr Fiona McLean
Pic: Dundee AC
Alzheimer's research: Dr Fiona McLean Pic: Dundee AC

Her focus will be on the blood-brain barrier and how it acts differently in Alzheimer’s.

According to research, blood vessels play a vital role in delivering oxygen to the brain, but, in the brain, there is a specialised group of cells that form a barrier between the blood vessels and the nerve cells.

This layer of protection is called the “blood-brain barrier”, and these cells determine what gets into the brain and what does not.

Some researchers say the blood-brain barrier deteriorates in people with Alzheimer’s, allowing toxic substances to enter the brain.

Former Celtic captain and manager Billy McNeill died of dementia in April 2019Former Celtic captain and manager Billy McNeill died of dementia in April 2019
Former Celtic captain and manager Billy McNeill died of dementia in April 2019

Dr McLean will look at when and how the build-up of amyloid, a waxy, translucent substance, composed primarily of protein fibres, that can build up in the brains of people with the disease, causes the blood-brain barrier to break down.

Some researchers believe this sets off damaging processes which lead to symptoms like memory loss and confusion.

And they say 80-90% of Alzheimer’s cases, amyloid clumps are also found embedded in blood vessels in the brain.

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The aim is to find ways to reverse these changes in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and keep the brain healthy.

Dr McLean said: “Funding from Alzheimer’s Research UK has allowed me to develop my research that could ultimately help the search for future dementia treatments.

“My research will provide insights on how the blood-brain barrier becomes leaky in Alzheimer’s with the hope of finding ways to slow down, stop or even reverse this happening.”

Dr Sara Imarisio, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, and ground-breaking research in Dundee will help to unpick the complex processes that contribute to its causes and drive progress towards new treatments.

“It’s not only researchers that can make a difference when it comes to dementia research.

“We urgently need people living with the condition and healthy volunteers to sign up to take part in vital research studies.”

The high levels of dementia in Scotland has come to greater prominence after a string former footballers were diagnosed with the disease, which led to the death of Lisbon Lion Billy McNeil in April 2019.

Researchers at Glasgow University assessed the medical records of almost 7,700 men who played professional football in Scotland between 1900 and 1976 - finding that they were approximately three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

Scotland legend Denis Law has also been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia.

The funding announcement comes to mark the start of Dementia Awareness Week.

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