Our Researchers

Adele Woodhouse

Selectively vulnerable neurons in Alzheimer’s disease: functional and morphological changes in healthy ageing and early Alzheimer's disease

The indcidence of Alzheimer’s disease is highly correlated with ageing, and it is known that the altered behaviour of neurons play an important role in memory loss in healthy aging. In Alzheimer’s disease severe memory deficts are caused by the dysfunction and death of a select group of neurons, yet it is not understood why these particular neurons are susceptible. Dr Woodhouse' fellowship will determine how the connections and activity of these vulnerable neurons are changed in healthy aging and early Alzheimer’s disease and aim to answer the following questions:

  1. Do neurons that are vulnerable in Alzheimer’s disease have a signature of changes in healthy ageing that might predispose them to be susceptible in Alzheimer’s disease?
  2. Do these vulnerable neurons have a distinct set of changes in their connections and activity in early Alzheimer’s disease?
  3. Can we identify novel targets in these vulnerable neurons for the development of new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease?

This fellowship will significantly advance our knowledge by producing information essential for understanding how neurons function in healthy ageing and how this is altered in the group of vulnerable neurons in Alzheimer’s disease. Understanding the mechanisms underlying the selective vulnerability of this important group of neurons in Alzheimer’s disease will potentially lead to the development of new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease.

Amir Hossein Ghapanchi

Improving quality of life for people with dementia: Development and evaluation of a 3D virtual world

3D Virtual Worlds are graphical computer applications which can simulate the real life. Users of these worlds can interact with these worlds via their own digital and graphical self-representations known as ‘avatars’. These worlds are accessible to users via Internet-connected personal computers. This technology enables people with lower mobility such as people with dementia to be able to experience things that they have experienced in their past life but are no longer able to experience very often due to their low mobility. For people living with dementia in long-term care, engagement in pleasurable activities and a feeling of control over their lives are essential for good quality of life , while depression is associated with poor quality of life. Consistent with this, when long-term care residents are actively engaged, they report improved quality of life and reduced depression. This project seeks to determine whether the use of 3D Virtual World technology by residents living with dementia in long-term care is meaningful and feasible, and if it can contribute to a higher quality of life for people with dementia.

Andrew Phipps

The role of epigenetics in Alzheimer’s disease, using mice as a model species

Ageing causes our cells to decline in both integrity and function. In healthy cells, our genes are tightly regulated so that the correct combination of genes are switched on, or off, at the proper time to allow for learning and memory to occur. This is achieved by the addition or removal of small chemical residues on top of the DNA, and the study of these processes is known as epigenetics. Epigenetic marks on our DNA can change during ageing, and diseases occur when this happens too quickly or in an uncontrolled way.

Proper epigenetic control must be maintained during ageing and Mr Phipps' PhD project raises the possibility that epigenetic dysregulation plays an important role in Alzheimer’s disease progression.  The overall aim of his PhD is to identify epigenetic alterations associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Preliminary data has revealed that epigenetic changes do occur in people with Alzheimer’s disease. However, existing knowledge of the epigenetic alterations in Alzheimer’s disease is extremely limited, highlighting that new knowledge in this area is critical.

At completion of Mr Phipps'  PhD he will understand whether distinct epigenetic signatures are associated with different stages of disease in Alzheimer’s disease, and if epigenetic changes occur in specific cell types in the brain or are dependent on proximity to AD pathology. These findings will significantly advance the understanding of the role of epigenetic dysregulation in Alzheimer’s disease and  could also identify new clinical treatments for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Ashleigh Beales

Making the right connections: Working with people with dementia and their families to reduce word finding difficulties in everyday communication

A common difficulty experienced by people with dementia is the inability to find the right words when speaking. This results in feelings of severe frustration and often leads to withdrawal from social situations. Such difficulties are frequently felt just as acutely by family members. This study proposes to build on a highly successful therapy program that has been piloted by the applicant that has shown to significantly improve the word finding abilities of people with one form of dementia, i.e. Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). The study proposes to further develop the novel intervention and carry out 20 intervention studies that involve 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease and 10 people with PPA. This intervention is unique in that it not only builds on our knowledge that people with PPA and Alzheimer’s disease do retain the ability to learn/relearn words, but it extends to providing people with successful strategies to use in conversation and everyday speaking situations. The intervention is also tailored to the needs of the individual and works closely with family members to ensure they are well supported. As well as assisting the person with dementia and their families, this study will provide important information for speech pathologists and other health professionals on what aspects of therapy work best and for whom. It will also assist in developing a better understanding of how language breaks down in dementia and how we might minimise the negative social implications for both those with dementia and their families.

Donna McCade

A therapeutic intervention in Alzheimer’s disease: Intranasal oxytocin ddministration to enhance emotion processing and reduce impact on caregivers

Research suggests that individuals with dementia are less accurate in their ability to recognise emotions such as anger, fear and sadness. This can have a devastating impact on the social behaviour of individuals with dementia and their social relationships. For example, poor emotion recognition abilities predicts increased impact amongst those caring for loved ones with dementia. Oxytocin is a hormone which has been found to improve emotion recognition ability and enhance trust. Dr McCade's project is an intervention programme aimed at individuals with Alzheimer’s disease to improve the accuracy in their emotion recognition and also to reduce caregiver burden in their caregivers (i.e., family members / significant others) via an intranasal administration of oxytocin over a one week period.

Emily Handley

Changes in synaptic alterations and its impact on frontotemporal dementia

Frontotemporal dementia is a form of dementia affecting primarily the frontal and temporal part of the brain. It is the second most common form of dementia in people under the age of 65. TDP-43, a DNA processing protein, is one of the main proteins that have been identified to play a role in frontotemporal dementia. Synapses are specialised structures that allow neurons to communicate with each other. Changes in synapses can have serious effects on neurons and if not controlled can cause neuron death. TDP-43 has been shown to affect the number and maturation of synapses. It is feasible that an early disease-causing event in frontotemporal dementia may be changes to synapses. Ms Handley will determine how TDP-43 changes lead to specific pre and post synaptic alterations in vitro using primary neurons.

Kara Harrington

Evaluation of Psychological Models of Cognitive Ageing: Modifiers of cognitive trajectories in healthy older adults

Cognitive ageing is the process of change in cognitive function that occurs as an individual ages. Reported to typically involve decline in fluid intelligence factors, such as processing speed, executive function and episodic memory, and retention of crystallised intelligence factors, such as knowledge-based numeric and verbal abilities. Estimates of the timing and extent of these changes vary between studies. This may be due to methodological differences, or failure to account for the influence of occult pathology or genetic factors. The aim of this series of studies is to understand the nature and magnitude of age related cognitive decline and the impact of occult pathology and genetics on trajectories of normal cognitive ageing.

Shantel Duffy

Evaluation of a 12-week combined psychoeducation and home-based exercise program on mood and wellbeing in older adults with early Alzheimer's disease

With the prevalence of dementia expected to increase significantly by 2050, the need for strategies to slow cognitive decline and improve wellbeing and physical function in people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease are clear, and in this regard, individualised exercise programs have demonstrable promise. Evidence suggests that physical inactivity is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and indeed, exercise interventions have been shown to improve executive function and memory in people with mild cognitive impairment. However previous exercise programs have been associated with high levels of face-to-face contact limiting their economic feasibility. This pilot randomised controlled trial aims to examine the effect of an individualised 12-week home-based exercise program combined with a structured motivation/psychoeducation program on mood, memory and quality of life as well as fitness, muscle strength and balance, in older people with early Alzheimer’s disease. Results will be compared to a control condition comprising a home-based workbook psychoeducation program. The outcomes of this study will be used to power larger, more rigorous randomized controlled trials and the preliminary results, if positive, could be easily translatable to current clinical practice.