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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Southampton researchers lead the way at Alzheimer’s Research UK annual conference

Published: 28 March 2014
Dr Mariana Vargas-Calallero

Three research projects from the University of Southampton, funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK, have been presented at the charity’s 2014 conference this week.

Professor Hugh Perry, Dr Mariana Vargas-Caballero and Dr Cheryl Hawkes all presented their work at the conference.

Professor Perry's research suggests that inflammation in the brain caused by systemic infections could drive the development of Alzheimer's disease.

The brain, like other areas of the body, contains immune cells poised and ready to mobilise in response to injury or damage. These cells have a wide variety of roles and can act both to ramp up the immune reaction by triggering inflammation, and to dampen down this defensive response. The balance of pro- and anti-inflammatory messages is important for maintaining a healthy brain environment.

Professor Hugh Perry

Previous research, some completed at the University of Southampton, has found that neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and prion diseases trigger an immune response in the brain. However, scientists continue to debate whether this immune response is protective or could cause these diseases to get worse.

The team of researchers, led by Professor Hugh Perry, has been studying inflammation in mice that develop a neurodegenerative disease similar to CJD in humans. This disease causes progressive nerve cell damage in the brain similar to that seen in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. The researchers have been looking closely at the behaviour of immune cells in the brain and their role in the development of this disease in mice.

Their findings show that early in the disease, immune cells in the brain appear to respond as a defence mechanism against the progressive damage to nerve cells. However, if the mice have a systemic infection at the same time, the immune cells switch roles, ramping up the levels of pro-inflammatory molecules in the brain and making the disease worse.

Dr Vargas-Caballero presented her work which explored how two particular proteins - amyloid beta and tau protein - interact and interferes with the capacity of brain cells to store memories, with the aim of explaining how memory loss emerges in Alzheimer's disease.

Dr Vargas-Caballero

Brain cells have the capacity to strengthen or weaken their connections. This capacity, known as synaptic plasticity, is considered the primary mechanism by which memories are stored in the human brain. Dr Vargas-Caballero analysed how both amyloid beta and tau protein interaction interferes with synaptic plasticity and has shown that amyloid beta doesn't damage plasticity unless a working copy of the tau protein is present too. She has been studying the chain of events that may link amyloid beta and tau with reduced plasticity and has identified a protein called GluN2B that appears to explain the effects of amyloid beta on neuronal connections.

Dr Cheryl Hawkes from the Faculty of Medicine spoke about how her team investigated the links between obesity and Alzheimer's. Obesity has been linked to a higher risk of the disease, and previous research has suggested that a mother's diet during pregnancy may affect a child's risk of obesity and conditions such as heart disease and diabetes in adulthood

Alzheimer's Research UK is the UK's leading dementia research charity, funding more than £20m of pioneering research into the condition across the UK. The charity's annual conference on 25 and 26 March is the largest of its kind in the UK, and allowed leading dementia scientists to share their progress in the drive to defeat dementia.

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