Aston scientist embarks on innovative dementia study

Prof Helen Griffiths

25 April 2013

Professor Helen Griffiths has won a funding award from Alzheimer’s Research UK to understand more about the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease.

The one-year study into dementia will look in detail at how genes are regulated in the brain and how this might play a role in inflammation linked to Alzheimer’s.

The Aston team believes that small changes in the activity of genes could alter the behaviour of cells in the body and play a role in diseases like Alzheimer’s.  

Alzheimer’s Research UK, which awarded £28,000 for the innovative project, is the UK’s leading dementia research charity, funding research across the UK into preventions, treatments and a cure for all forms of dementia.

Prof Griffiths, Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Aston University, who is heading up the study, said: “Huge advances have been made in our understanding of how genes are controlled. Small strips of DNA, previously thought of as ‘genetic junk’, have now been found to fine-tune the activity of genes and been linked to diseases such as cancer and heart disease. These strips of DNA encode microRNA (miRNA) and are revolutionising our approach to studying diseases.”

Prof Griffiths believes that miRNAs may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s by altering the function of blood vessels in the brain and affecting the brain’s response to inflammation. To study this in more detail she will look at the effect of different miRNAs on artificial blood vessels grown in the lab, looking for those that could be linked to the disease.

She said; “By understanding more about miRNAs and their role in keeping our brains healthy, we hope to understand more about what can go wrong in Alzheimer’s. We are also interested in whether treatments could influence the action of miRNAs. This knowledge could help in the design of new treatments for Alzheimer’s. We are really pleased that Alzheimer’s Research UK has invested in this area, which has been relatively poorly studied in the past.”

Shabana Mahmood, MP for Birmingham Ladywood and Shadow Minister for Universities & Science, who is supporting the study, said; “It is great to see new investment in dementia research here in Birmingham. Our Universities have a strong track record in scientific research, but without investment from charities like Alzheimer’s Research UK, that research would grind to a halt. Dementia has an enormous impact - on society, the economy and on the lives of those living with or caring for someone with the condition. More research into dementia is absolutely vital to help those affected now and in the future.”

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said; “Our Pilot Project funding is awarded to scientists with original and exciting ideas, to drive research in innovative new directions. This is a relatively new area for dementia research and we are very interested to see what the team finds and how this will help our understanding of the factors contributing to Alzheimer’s.”

“There are more than 820,000 people living with dementia in the UK – more than 9,000 in Birmingham alone – and the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. There are currently no treatments available that slow down the disease and still a lot left to understand about what causes it. We are incredibly grateful to our supporters who allow us to fund groundbreaking studies like this one, but sadly research into Alzheimer’s still remains underfunded compared to other common diseases. We need sustained investment in research if we are to find the answers that are so desperately needed.”


For further information, or to speak with Prof Helen Griffiths or Dr Simon Ridley, please contact Laura Phipps, Science Communications Officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK on 0300 111 5 666, mobile 07500 803936 or email  

Notes to editors:

  • Alzheimer’s Research UK is the UK’s leading charity specialising in finding preventions, treatments and a cure for dementia.
  • To help us defeat dementia, donate today by visiting or calling 0300 111 5555.
  • We are currently supporting dementia research projects worth over £20 million in leading Universities across the UK.