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Researchers at Oxford University are recruiting volunteers aged 50+ who have either mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or early-stage dementia, as well as neurologically healthy people as an essential comparison to those with memory impairment.

DPUK research assistant Jemma Pitt in a MEG scanner

The recruitment is for a study called New Therapeutics in Alzheimer’s Disease (NTAD), which aims to find the best way to detect brain changes that will speed up clinical trials of new treatments for dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease urgently needs new treatments to halt the disease, but it is difficult to know which new experimental treatments are the most likely to work. With clinical trials costing hundreds of millions of pounds and taking several years, progress is slow and expensive. The NTAD researchers want to speed up this process and make it possible to say yes – or no – to possible treatments more quickly and cheaply.

Dementias Platform UK has set up the NTAD study, led by a team at Cambridge University working in partnership with Oxford University. The Cambridge team began the research in 2018 and is already seeing promising results. NTAD complements other ongoing research in Oxford, including the Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study, which looks at different measurements from people who feel healthy but are at risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Together, these two studies will improve ways to detect and stop the disease as early as possible.

Recruitment for NTAD in Oxford was interrupted this year by COVID-19. However, the Oxford team has got the go-ahead to safely resume the study at the NIHR Oxford Cognitive Health Clinical Research Facility, Warneford Hospital. The study involves several visits: first to check that people are a good match for the study, then two brain scans. In only a month since restarting the study, five people have completed the study, but the team needs another 50 volunteers.

Study volunteer Simon Knapper, from Faringdon, said: ‘From the very start, I was made to feel very welcome by the NTAD researchers. Every task was explained in detail, and the team always made it clear there was no pass or fail. Some memory and thinking tasks I found easy, some rather harder, and some required a huge amount of concentration. But I was always left with a great sense of achievement however well I did. I also learned a lot about my own mental abilities.’

Volunteer Sally Harbourne, from High Wycombe, said: ‘I was given the choice of a PET scan or lumbar puncture – I opted for a lumbar puncture. It was very straightforward and the doctor who carried out the procedure could not have been more caring, explaining exactly what was going to happen and how I might feel after.’

Jemma Pitt, a research assistant on the Oxford NTAD study, explained: ‘PET scans and lumbar punctures can both be used to determine which proteins and chemicals are present in the brain. Using this information, we can determine if the presence of different molecules is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. If they are, they can be considered biomarkers – or biological indicators – of the disease.’

The research team is also investigating brain activity by looking at brain waves while people rest and while they remember pictures. To do this, participants have a special scan called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures the small magnetic fields coming from the brain. These are combined with an MRI scan that shows the shape and size of the brain. Together, they give an excellent insight into a person’s brain function and the impact of dementia.

Volunteer Sally said: ‘During the whole process I felt completely safe and well-briefed, and in the care of staff who were professional and with a sense of humour.’ Simon added: ‘Everyone wore the appropriate PPE, and at no stage did I feel that corners were being cut, or safety compromised.’

NTAD is also supported by the pharmaceutical companies Lilly and Janssen, which have come to the University teams to develop new ways to speed up drug discovery. Jemma Pitt said: ‘It is great that we are able to resume such important research. By collecting data from brain imaging and memory assessments, we hope this will lead to future drug trials to help patients and their families.’

Simon concluded: ‘I was very impressed throughout by the professionalism and dedication of the whole NTAD team, and I am now overwhelmingly confident that real progress can be made in dementia research. I would encourage anyone who is even just considering taking part to get in touch with the NTAD project and take a look.’

To take part in the Oxford branch of the NTAD study, please contact Jemma Pitt at ntad@psych.ox.ac.uk.

For more information on NTAD, visit the NTAD webpage.