We speak to Professor John O’Brien, the principal investigator leading the Old Age Psychiatry Group at the Department of Psychiatry, about his recent research.
Could you summarise the research that you are doing here?
We are undertaking research in late life psychiatric disorders, most particularly dementia and depression. We are particularly interested in neurobiological changes underpinning these disorders, including developing and validating biomarkers that may be helpful for early and accurate diagnosis, and as markers of disease progression.
For example, funded by the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Unit in Dementia, we are undertaking novel neuroimaging studies, including multimodal magnetic resonance imaging and PET studies of inflammation, amyloid and tau imaging. Through these studies we can begin to stratify subjects according to pathological changes in vivo, and also tease out the temporal relationships between some of the key brain changes underpinning cognitive decline. One important question we are examining is at what stage during cognitive impairment can inflammation be demonstrated in the brain, whether this plays an important role in accelerating cognitive decline. Using magnetic resonance imaging we are using novel methods of examining cortical thickness to determine regional brain matter changes in dementia with Lewy bodies, Alzheimer’s disease and healthy aging, and how these alter over the disease course. We also have an active clinical trial programme in dementia and through an NIHR programme grant have a special focus on improving the diagnosis and management of Lewy body dementia.
Why is this important?
Dementia is a huge and growing health problem, not only in the UK but internationally. Whilst we have some symptomatic treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, many aetiological factors for both Alzheimer’s and other dementias remain to be determined, yet such studies are essential to inform better therapies. In order to benefit from future therapies, it is essential to be able to identify and diagnose patients accurately, and to do so at the very early stages. As such, our works spans these two key dimensions of dementia research, firstly investigating biomarkers and other methods that will help accurately identify and define individuals with a condition and, secondly, using imaging and other methods to better understand pathophysiology, so identifying treatment targets.
What is your hope for the future of dementia research?
The hope for the future is to enable rapid, early diagnosis to be combined with effective therapies to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, and, ultimately, preventing dementia. Some of these may be pharmacological agents and drugs, but other may be lifestyle interventions such as exercise, vascular risk control and mental stimulation. Most likely, a combination of these will be required.
Any advice for aspiring researchers in neurodegeneration?
Go for it! It’s a really exciting and rapidly moving field with huge potential. It’s an area of research that spans very basic cellular science right through to epidemiological population studies, and interventions ranging from the genetic and molecular through to psychosocial interventions. There are very exciting prospects for major advances over the next few years to translate into major health gains for the population.
[To read more about Professor O’Brien’s recent work in dementia research, check out <Mak et al., 2015>, a recent paper published by the Old Age Psychiatry Group.] Many thanks to Professor O’Brien; we wish him the best of luck with his ongoing studies.