Trinity scientists' race against time to combat global dementia epidemic
Published 21/11/2015 | 02:30
Deep in the science labs in Trinity College Dublin, a tight-knit group of academics are in a race against time.
They're spearheading a worldwide fight against the growth of dementia, which affects 50,000 sufferers in Ireland and 48 million worldwide.
This week the ground-breaking unit received an unprecedented boost when one of the world's billionaires donated €138m to speed up their research into a cure for the deadly disease.
It's the biggest charitable donation in Irish history.
"Our fight is to stop the projected tripling of dementia by 2050," Trinity's professor of psychology, Ian Robertson, told the Irish Independent.
The TCD team will work in tandem with a group of researchers from the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), as part of a project dubbed the Global Brain Health Institute. The venture will run over 15 years and spending will be monitored against performance annually.
But Professor Robertson doesn't underestimate the huge size of the task at hand - particularly trying to change deeply ingrained attitudes towards dementia.
He suggests there is currently a fatalistic acceptance of the disease - in contrast to the treatment of other conditions such as HIV/Aids and certain cancers.
For example, research into dementia gets only 5pc of what is allocated for cancer linked investigations.
Accordingly, the scale of the challenge facing the TCD team is far-reaching.
"Dementia is a range of different diseases with different causes. We obviously live in hope of a cure, but at the moment there is nothing in prospect.
"There is no single silver bullet," said Professor Robertson, as he prepares to lead an onslaught on a disease which is now stalking an increasingly older population in Ireland and other countries.
"This deal came about because Atlantic Philanthropies has invested heavily in Trinity and Ireland, particularly in the areas of ageing and neuroscience. They approached me originally about two years ago and asked for some ideas," said Professor Robertson.
"I'm also confident we can raise a huge amount of additional funds through national and international organisations," he added.
The cash windfall for the research project is the largest ever donation made by the foundation - headed by millionaire Irish-American businessman, Chuck Feeney.
The TCD team is now about to substantially beef up its personnel with the recruitment of high-level research talent from both at home and abroad.
Experts with a range of talents ranging from scientists and medical specialists - and even film makers to heighten awareness of the disease - will join the team. Specialists in the area of brain imaging will also be part of the unit.
Dementia covers a broad range of brain conditions, which cause long-term, gradual decline in the ability to think and remember.
It can lead to problems with language and various emotional problems - and although a person's consciousness is not affected - it can result in lethargy and a decline in motivation.
It is also a condition which can affect extended family members, particularly for those who have to adopt the role of care-givers.
Risk factors for contracting the disease include diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and smoking.
The joint TCD and San Francisco university project will also include "600 leaders" based in various countries around the world. The Trinity hub will track the development of new treatments and preventative methods as they come on stream. Professor Robertson said that up to 30pc of dementia cases could be prevented, if there was a reduction in conditions such as diabetes, coupled with an improved diet and more physical activity.