Neuroscientists’ work offers hope for people living with dementia

> The numbers show dementia is a growing problem

Two UniSA researchers are hopeful of major breakthroughs in preventing and treating dementia, the second leading cause of death in Australia.

Dr Hannah Keage wearing an EC cap to measure brain activity (used to predict delirium risk in older people) and Dr Tobias Loetscher wearing tracking glasses (used to see how people with dementia focus on certain subjects).Dr Hannah Keage wearing an EC cap to measure brain activity (used to predict delirium risk in older people) and Dr Tobias Loetscher wearing tracking glasses (used to see how people with dementia focus on certain subjects).

Cognitive neuroscientists Dr Hannah Keage and Dr Tobias Loetscher have been collectively awarded $1.4 million by the Federal Government as part of plans to urgently scale up dementia research.

Dr Keage and Dr Loetscher will use their NHMRC Fellowship funds to investigate the link between visual impairments and dementia, and strategies to help those at higher risk of developing dementia because of cardiovascular disease.

Over the next four years the researchers – who are based in UniSA’s Cognitive Ageing and Impairment Neurosciences (CAIN) Lab at the Magill campus – will undertake a number of studies to tackle several issues related to dementia. Dementia is the single greatest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 years or older.

Helping those at higher risk because of cardiovascular disease

Dr Keage’s $718,000 project will look at the cognitive impacts of heart surgeries in older adults, with approximately 10,000 people over the age of 65 undergoing such operations in Australia each year. These individuals are typically vulnerable to developing dementia due to long histories of cardiovascular disease.

“Older adults with cardiovascular disease and associated conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, obesity and hypertension are at risk of dementia,” Dr Keage says. “They are also at risk of needing heart surgery, which is an additive risk factor for cognitive decline, and we can look at intervention strategies to help arrest that after surgery.

“We are going to undertake experiments in Adelaide hospitals to increase older patients’ cognitive function after cardiovascular surgery and also try to develop tools where we can identify people at a higher risk of delirium, which often accelerates dementia onset,” Dr Keage says.

There are preventative strategies for delirium but they are expensive and if the researchers can identify those at higher risk, these strategies can be targeted to treat the more vulnerable patients.

Exploring the link between visual impairments and dementia

Dr Loetscher will use his $712,000 NHMRC grant to understand the visual problems that people with dementia experience, so that changes can be made to their environment.

“More than half of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are affected by visual impairments, particularly perceiving contrasts, depth and also motion,” Dr Loetscher says.

“These visual problems may appear before signs of memory loss, so part of my research will involve recruiting older people and assessing their eye movements and cognitive function over a period of a few years to see if certain visual abnormalities predict the development and progression of cognitive impairments.”

The researcher will also work with Helping Hand, one of South Australia’s largest aged care providers, to investigate what changes can be made to environments to make life easier for people living with dementia.

“Simple things like ensuring there are clear contrasts between the colours of walls and doors so they can find their way around, and also making sure that dinner plates are contrasted with table cloths,” he says.

“People with dementia often don’t drink or eat enough. It may not always be because they forget or aren’t hungry, but simply because they can’t see their food clearly if there are not distinct contrasts on a dining table.”

Dr Loetscher’s findings will not only help inform the design of aged care homes, but also to adapt the individual homes of people living with dementia.

The two researchers are keen to recruit masters and PhD students in the School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy to help work on the projects. Email Hannah or Tobias for more information.

The numbers show dementia is a growing problem

More than 410,000 Australians are living with dementia, with the number expected to grow to more than half a million by 2025, according to Alzheimer’s Australia.

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia after heart disease, contributing to 10.6 per cent of deaths in women and 5.4 per cent of deaths among men.

Projections suggest that by 2025 about 255,800 dementia carers will be needed in Australia.