In 2015, the UK took a significant step in leading the world against a global health challenge – the announcement of a national Institute focused on dementia research. Six years later, the UK DRI is now made up of over 650 scientists working across seven world-class research centres. As Director, I’m extremely proud of what we have built and the potential to significantly advance our understanding of disease. But over recent years, I’ve felt that the term ‘dementia research’ is perhaps slightly misleading for the work that goes on at the Institute.
The early birds
Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of symptoms which commonly include issues with memory, language, thinking and problem-solving. When we first start to see these symptoms appear in our loved ones, it may well be the beginning of dementia, but really it signals a process that began decades before. By this point, millions of neurons have been lost and sadly it’s looking more and more likely that we’ll be unable to recover them. The best shot we have is to intervene early with treatments targeting the very beginning stages of these diseases. We need to get ahead of dementia.
Making new discoveries
To do this, two major areas must be addressed in my opinion. Firstly, our understanding. There are several neurodegenerative diseases that eventually lead to the dementia, with both shared and unique characteristics and causes. The most common disease for example, Alzheimer’s, is a hugely complex condition. However, a disease whose cause has multiple layers and factors, also has several potential weak spots for drugs and treatments. To find these targets, we must build a greater understanding of these diseases by accelerating our fundamental discovery research into them. This is exactly what we’re striving to achieve at the UK DRI, with researchers working across specialities and disciplines. So although we may speak about treating dementia, we’re really aiming to solve issues way before that, tackle neurodegeneration and feed the pipeline for new, much-needed treatments.