The human brain is the one of the most complex systems in the world and so tackling the diseases that cause dementia is a huge challenge. Historically, dementia research has suffered from lack of awareness and investment, with 99 per cent of clinical trials into Alzheimer’s failing over the past decade. Despite this, dementia research is at a turning point, says Dr Matthew Norton, Director of Policy and Strategy at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “We’re still not as good at knowing how the brain works as we’d like to be,” says Norton. “but the tide is definitely starting to turn.”

Technological advances, rising person-power and a new collaborative investment drives are all playing a role.


Technology is crucial


“Big data is being used really effectively in the commercial arena,” points out Norton.

"The NHS is probably the only system in the world with lifelong data, so how do we make best use of that?”

People, he suggests, have huge power to advance research by contributing their own data for research purposes.

In terms of building up a baseline picture of how dementia progresses, “technology is crucial”. Over two million people have played Alzheimer’s Research UK’s mobile app Sea Hero Quest, which uses gaming to collect data on users’ spatial awareness and navigational skills.

“The app is helping researchers build a picture of what’s normal,” explains Norton. “That information will help them understand how this process goes wrong in Alzheimer’s and potentially how to spot changes early. The big data space is very exciting.”

The charity’s Insight 46 project is also taking advantage of decades of health data. This state-of-the-art UCL brain imaging study tracks 500 people who have already contributed regular health and lifestyle information as part of the life-long research project

 “This study is helping researchers build a picture of some of the earliest brain changes in those in their late sixties and what could be driving them.” This knowledge, Norton says, is crucial for addressing the biggest unknowns in dementia research and informing the growing search for better ways to treat the condition.


Translating knowledge into treatments


When it comes to drug discovery and delivery, investment is key.

With clinical trials costing pharmaceutical companies up to a billion pounds, it’s vital that charities, universities and government are working together to give potential new treatments the best chance of success. Government investment increased from £28 million to £66 million between 2012 and 2015, while Alzheimer’s Research UK is also contributing to major new schemes such as the Dementia Consortium, the MRC Dementia Research Institute, and the Dementia Discovery Fund. “But what we can’t forget”, says Norton, “is that people are waiting for the fruits of these labours.”

“There are currently around 12 potential new drug treatments in the final phase of testing”, says Norton. “We’re hopeful that we could see some positive results over the next couple of years.”

If so, delivery will be the next main challenge.

“We’ve been working towards this kind of advance for so long that we cannot let ourselves be surprised when it arrives. The NHS must be geared up to allow patients to access the most cutting-edge innovations from dementia research. We’re feeding into the government’s Accelerated Access Review to make sure that this happens. It might need cultural change in the NHS – better communication between neurologists, GPs, psychiatrists, care and support,” Norton says. But the barriers aren’t insurmountable, and we’re having these important conversations now.”