Following $1.2 million in funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services, researchers at Trinity will begin to investigate the link between illness, brain dysfunction and dementia over the next five years.
Assistant Professor in Neuroscience at Trinity, Colm Cunningham will lead the research, investigating the ways in which the brain becomes vulnerable following acute illnesses. This link has only recently been recognised, making this research some of the first of it’s kind.
Acute illness in the elderly often results in a complication known as delirium, where those affected experience profound disorientation and confusion. Delirium, as well as being distressing, can also exacerbate the onset and progression of dementia. Cunningham’s research will focus primarily on the molecular link between acute illnesses and brain dysfunctions like delirium.
In a press statement, Cunningham said: “Evidence that inflammation throughout the body can trigger dysfunction and injury in the brain has been slowly accumulating, but this award allows us to really get into the detail of how the brain becomes vulnerable.”
Cunningham went on to say that, thanks to tools made by Prof John Lowry in NUI Maynooth, the team can also begin to investigate how brain metabolism changes during sudden illness. Metabolism refers to a number of pathways by which cells produce energy and other intermediates that they require for survival. A newfound appreciation for the role of metabolism in infection has arisen in the last five years, with an entirely new field of immunology emerging known as immuno-metabolism. Technological advances, such as those made by Lowry, have helped tremendously.
In the press release, Dr Molly Wagster, Chief of the Neuroscience Branch of the US-based National Institute on Ageing, Behavioral and Systems, said: “We are delighted to support this collaborative investigation into the molecular underpinnings of delirium.”
Acute illnesses are those with a sudden and severe onset, such as colds, flu, appendicitis and chronic leukaemia. The connection between these illnesses and problems with brain function, or illnesses in the brain, have only been appreciated recently.
Researchers for the study will rely solely on mouse models, which are mice, infected with a certain condition, so as to stand in for a human patient with this disease. However, researchers will also collaborate with Alzheimer’s Ireland, by following the onset of illness in certain elderly patients.