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Unlocking new clues to how dementia and Alzheimer’s work in the brain – Uncharted Brain podcast series

An image of a brain scan.
Around the world 55 million people live with dementia. Researchers are still looking for answers on what causes it and how to treat it. Science Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo

This week on The Conversation Weekly podcast we’re running a three-part series called Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia, which delves into new research searching for answers to how dementia works in the brain and the damage it leaves behind. Hosted by Paul Keaveny and Gemma Ware, it was initially published via The Anthill podcast from the team at The Conversation in the UK.

Part 1: a lifelong study unlocks clues to Alzheimer’s

In the first episode, we explore how a study which began just after the end of the second world war is discovering clues to Alzheimer’s.

Based on a representative sample of 5,362 babies all born in the same week in the UK in 1946, the National Survey of Health and Development began as a one-off investigation of the cost of childbirth and the quality and efficiency of obstetric services. From there it became the longest continuously running study of health over the human life course in the world – also known as the British 1946 birth cohort.

Since 2016, the brains of some of its participants are revealing new insights into the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. We find out more from Marcus Richards and Jon Schott, two of the researchers from UCL in the UK behind the study, and David Ward, one of the study participants whose brain is being studied as part of the dementia research.


Read more: We've been studying the same people for 76 years – this is what we’ve found out about Alzheimer’s disease


Part 2: the family trauma of dementia from sports injuries

In the second episode, we explore chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of dementia that athletes from a whole range of sports can develop. We hear about the toll it can take on family members, who are often unaware of what’s happening to their loved ones.

CTE is now at the centre of a number of legal challenges involving sports from rugby to American football.

After Lisa McHale’s husband Tom, a former NFL player, died in 2008, she received a request from researchers at Boston University School of Medicine to study his brain for signs of CTE – and was told he had quite a severe case. She says that learning more about the disease has been extremely helpful in processing what happened to her husband.

Today, McHale is director of family relations at the US-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, which works with family members who lost loved ones after they developed CTE. Matt Smith, a sports psychologist at the University of Winchester, recently led a research project interviewing some of these family members about their experiences. We talk to them both in part two of the series.


Read more: Sport-induced traumatic brain injury: families reveal the 'hell' of living with the condition


Part 3: the role viruses may play in Alzheimer’s

There are many competing theories about what causes Alzheimer’s disease. For more than 30 years, Ruth Itzhaki has been accumulating evidence that viruses are involved in its development in the brain. We investigate this evidence in the third and final episode.

Itzhaki, a neurobiologist and visiting professorial fellow at the University of Oxford, believes the common cold sore virus (herpes simplex 1 or HSV1) could be playing a vital role in Alzheimer’s. But she has faced years of hostility from many within the scientific community who didn’t take the theory seriously. Now, though, it seems the tide of opinion is at last turning in Itzhaki’s favour.


Read more: My work investigating the links between viruses and Alzheimer’s disease was dismissed for years – but now the evidence is building


Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia is reported by Paul Keaveny, investigations editor at The Conversation in the UK for the Insights team, which published articles linked to each of the episodes in this podcast series. The series is produced and written by Tiffany Cassidy with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer and co-host is Gemma Ware. The Conversation Weekly theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

You can find us on Twitter @TC_Audio, on Instagram at theconversationdotcom or via email.

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