Dementia

Dementia

Coloured microscopic image
Dementia is a term used to describe chronic and progressive decline in memory and other thinking skills, and the associated impacts on people’s ability to function. It can result from a number of neurodegenerative conditions, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease. 

Smiling researchers
Associate Professors Rosie Watson (L) and Nawaf
Yassi (R) are developing a blood test to distinguish
between different types of dementia

Dementia is currently incurable, and its underlying cause are challenging to diagnose, particularly at early stages. 

In Australia, more than 440,000 people – mostly older individuals – have dementia. It is predicted to soon become the leading cause of death in Australia. This condition also has a huge social and economic burden on our community, with people with dementia being unable to work and requiring ongoing assistance and support. 

Our dementia research

We are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to improving the outlook for people with dementia, involving clinicians from different medical disciplines, as well as experts in proteomics, cell biology and drug discovery.

Specific areas of focus for our dementia research are:
  • Understanding and detecting the brain changes that occur in the early stages of dementia, to develop new diagnostic tests, that could allow people to access the best available treatments sooner.
  • Discovering new genetic clues behind the different causes of dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders.
  • Supporting collaborative and multidisciplinary clinical cohorts in dementia to understand and untangle the overlap of the different causes of dementia
  • Using knowledge of the causes to discover new medicines that could potentially halt or even reverse the progression of dementia and conditions that lead to dementia, including Parkinson’s disease.
  • Leading investigator-initiated clinical trials to test new potential therapies for dementia.

Our dementia research has been boosted by the establishment of the Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre, a collaboration with The Royal Melbourne Hospital.

What is dementia?

Microscopic image of coloured cells
A neuron (green) grown in the laboratory

People with dementia experience changes in their thinking, memory and behaviour. These can include:

  • memory loss and confusion
  • a decrease in language skills
  • personality changes 
  • an inability to perform everyday tasks such as preparing meals or dressing.

Symptoms of dementia can vary between patients, and with different types of dementia.

The most common forms of dementia in Australia are Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy Bodies and vascular dementia. Dementia can also occur as a result of other neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease. 

Dementia risk factors

  • Age: the risk of developing dementia increases with age.
  • Family history and genetics: people with close relatives with dementia are more likely to develop the condition themselves. In a few cases, specific genetic changes have been associated with an increased risk of dementia.
  • Moderate to severe or repetitive head injuries may increase a person’s risk of developing dementia. 
  • A range of other health conditions can increase a person’s risk of dementia. These include depression, vascular diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes

How is dementia diagnosed and treated?

Dementia can be difficult to diagnose, particularly at earlier stages. Most dementia types also have a long preclinical phase where there is accumulation of changes in the brain with little or no symptoms. This is challenging as any potential disease-modifying therapies are most likely to be effective if delivered early in the disease. Early diagnosis also enables a person with dementia to be involved in planning their future care. 

Smiling researcher
Associate Professor Andrew Webb jointly leads the
Colonial Foundation Healthy Ageing Centre, which
aims to develop diagnostic tests for the early detection
of dementia

There is no single diagnostic test for any form of dementia. Diagnosing dementia requires consideration of a person’s family and medical history and testing of thinking and memory abilities. Changes to the person’s behaviour or personality are also considered when diagnosing dementia. In some people with dementia, changes in their brain’s structure can be seen using medical imaging. Symptoms of dementia overlap with other conditions such as nutrient deficiencies, depression or medication side-effects, and these need to be excluded as part of the diagnosis. 

There is a potential for specific diagnostic biomarkers to help in the diagnosis of dementia and its different causes. Most research in this area has been in the field of Alzheimer’s disease, where measurement of Alzheimer’s disease pathology using medical imaging (PET) or spinal fluid analysis can identify the underlying disease process and can complement clinical assessment. However, these tools are not routinely available in the clinic and are largely research-based tools due to their cost, difficulty of access, and invasiveness. Many groups are currently actively investigating the potential for a blood test to measure these changes quickly, accurately and non-invasively which would revolutionise dementia diagnosis.

There are medications that help treat the symptoms in some forms of dementia, but they do not cure this condition. People with early-stage dementia may choose to plan for their future requirements such as selecting future forms of assistance and deciding on their living arrangements. Occupational therapy can help people with dementia adjust their environment to meet their changing needs, and improve their safety. Exercise may also help to slow cognitive decline in certain forms of dementia. Close friends and family members can also be educated about effective ways to assist and communicate with people with dementia. 

Support for people impacted by dementia

Our researchers are not able to provide specific medical advice to individuals. If you have been diagnosed with dementia or are supporting someone with this condition, please visit: 

 

Super Content: 
View of neural stem cells

Learn about our research into the causes of neurodegenerative disorders, and our work to develop new treatments for these conditions.

Professor Doug Hilton and Professor Christine Kilpatrick

The grant will enable a new research program – led by researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and The Royal Melbourne Hospital – to develop diagnostic tests for the early detection of dementia in people as young as 40.

Microscopic image of a neuron

Our scientists are working to improve the detection of neurodegenerative conditions that cause dementia.

Two male researchers standing in a laboratory

Our researchers have revealed how a key protein protects against the death of neurons that occurs in Parkinson's disease.