Charity funding awarded for innovative new vascular dementia research

Swansea University’s College of Human and Health Sciences has successfully been awarded funding by dementia research charity BRACE to pursue an innovative new study into vascular dementia.

PhD student Emma Richards, who originally began her studies as a Psychology undergraduate at Swansea University, will now work alongside supervisor Professor Andrea Tales on the project entitled “Characterising vascular mild cognitive impairment and vascular dementia.”

Emma has a strong background in dementia care and research having begun work as an assistant physiotherapist at a specialist dementia care facility. She focussed her undergraduate dissertation on psychological treatments and carer stress within Alzheimer’s disease and on completion of her degree, went on to work in a number of research roles within the NHS and Social Services.

Emma said: “At 16 years old I became a carer for my Grandmother who had dementia. I was devastated at her diagnosis; however this gave me valuable insight, and give me first hand personal experiences of the effects of this disease, and it was at this point in my life I decided that I was going to make a difference to the lives of the people with dementia and their carers.”

“I studied for a Master’s Degree in Psychology through the Open University; my focus was the brain and ageing, specifically dementia.”

“My last job role was a project coordinator for South Wales on the ESRC funded Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (CFAS) at Swansea University, a longitudinal study looking at the health and cognitive function of older people. I also teach about dementia on the MSc in Gerontology and Ageing Studies.”

“Having completed a BSc (Hons), MSc and PGCE, and now studying for a PhD this places me in an excellent position to have an impact and improve the lives of people with dementia and their carers.”

Professor Andrea Tales said: “Vascular disease is a major cause of cognitive impairment and dementia but is under-investigated and poorly characterised compared to Alzheimer’s disease.  Mild cognitive impairment is a clinical term used to describe the presence of cognitive abnormality greater than expected in relation to a person’s age and level of education and can represent an increased risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Despite its high prevalence in the community, mild cognitive impairment in relation to vascular dementia is not a current research priority with research tending to focus predominantly on Alzheimer’s disease.

“Emma’s study aims to improve the characterisation of vascular-related mild cognitive impairment and vascular dementia compared to healthy ageing, with respect to signs, symptoms, behaviour and quality of life, and to investigate changes in brain function in vascular-related mild cognitive impairment that may help to better determine when it represents the early stages of vascular dementia.

The plan is to test a wide range of brain functions in vascular-related mild cognitive impairment and vascular dementia in addition to those measured as part of routine clinical assessment, including those related to vision, attention, executive function and processing speed and accuracy.”

Unlike previous studies that have required expensive laboratory-based equipment, technological advances have allowed the researchers to initiate an especially novel approach to such research using iPads. The use of iPads means that the results of the tests can be obtained immediately by researchers and clinicians so they are future-proofed for potential application.

In another novel initiative, Emma will also develop a new questionnaire-based examination/assessment of a person’s perception and understanding of their own attentional function in order to improve our understanding of the relationship between research results and real-life experience, and to raise awareness amongst clinicians and the general public about the importance of attention.

Professor Tales concluded: “We expect the outcome of this research study to increase our understanding of vascular-related mild cognitive impairment and vascular dementia and to have a direct, positive influence on the development of real-life and clinically-relevant tests of brain function, such as those used for early diagnosis and for guiding management.

“I will disseminate the results of the research, and if appropriate, translate the research findings into policy and practice.  Within the academic context, publications emanating from the thesis will be developed for high quality peer-review journals. I will build on the PhD research to undertake a post-doctoral fellowship. This studentship will give me the skills to become an expert in this field, and the opportunity to pursue my passion, passing on my knowledge and expertise.”

Mark Poarch, Chief Executive of BRACE, said: "BRACE was formed in Bristol in 1987 and has grown into a regional charity (SW England and S Wales) supporting research at seven universities. Its purpose is to support medical research into the causes, diagnosis and treatment of dementia. BRACE raises funds from across the UK but, because of its focused regional policy where research funding is concerned, it has helped build a strong network of dementia researchers both sides of the Bristol Channel. The charity's role is often to fund the smaller scale research which leads on to more major projects, and to help train the PhD researchers who will become tomorrow's leading dementia scientists.

“Every application is subjected to peer review and considered at length by the charity's own Scientific Advisory Committee. BRACE needs to ensure that a research proposal meets strict criteria which indicate that it is likely to add usefully to our knowledge of dementia and/or our ability to provide clinical benefit. This proposal was judged likely to make a valuable contribution within these guidelines and provide good research training.

“I am sure that Emma’s study will be a vital element in the broader global fight against dementia. We wish her all the best with her reaserch.”