Essex part of £1.5 million Alzheimer’s research project 

  • Date

    Fri 10 Sep 21

DNA molecule

University of Essex scientists are part of a major new £1.5 million research project that will examine how genes function in specific brain cell-types to better understand Alzheimer’s disease.

Funded by the Medical Research Council, and led by the University of Exeter, the research will for the first time examine changes in gene activity in different cell-types in the brain to find changes associated with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disorder that affects more than 26 million people worldwide, with no treatment available to improve the course of the disease. Despite major advances in identifying genetic risk factors, uncertainty remains about the specific genes that cause the condition and how their function is dysregulated in its progression.

It is known that Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by changes occurring in certain cell-types, for example it involves the extensive loss of neurons. Therefore, it is critical to measure gene activity in each different brain cell-type individually to understand how they are linked to the development of the condition. Mapping the differences will potentially enable a step-change in unravelling the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease.

Essex scientists will be working with colleagues at the Universities of Exeter, Imperial College London and Bristol and the extensive data collected in the study and the methods used will be made freely accessible, to provide an Open Science resource to the wider research community and stimulate dementia research across the world.

Professor Leonard Schalkwyk, who is leading the Essex team at the School of Life Sciences, said: “I'm really excited about this project which will map gene regulation in Alzheimer's disease to individual cell types. This is a fantastic collaboration with researchers from Exeter, Imperial and Bristol.

Study lead Professor Jonathan Mill, from the University of Exeter, said: “We’re delighted that our project has been funded by the Medical Research Council. By identifying genomic changes in specific cell-types in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, we will be in a unique position to understand more about the molecular processes involved in this terrible condition and identify pathways that can be hopefully targeted by novel drugs and treatments.”

The Genomics and Computational Biology Group at Essex’s School of Life Sciences has a particular strength in epigenetics and chromatin structure. Professor Schalkwyk is a leader in DNA methylation analysis methods and his group studies DNA methylation in health and disease and environmental effects on DNA methylation.