The Regenerative Neuroscience Group (RNG) aims to develop new preventative strategies to stop dementia occurring in the first instance, as well as trial new therapeutic ideas that may ultimately cure this dreadful condition and so bring hope to millions of affected individuals.
The Regenerative Neuroscience Group (RNG) is a team of problem solvers. Led by Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela and based at the Brain and Mind Research Institute, we come from a wide diversity of professional backgrounds, ranging from the business world to biomedical engineering, biology, neuroscience, medicine and psychology.
We are currently working on 16 research projects aimed at increasing public awareness about modifiable dementia risk factors, developing better dementia prevention strategies, or discovery of new therapeutic approaches. RNG has four main research themes – cognitive lifestyle, brain imaging, stem cells and the canine brain – yet many of our projects sit in the interesting cross-over areas in-between. RNG projects are in collaboration with leading researchers from around the world.
RNG is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia as well as generously supported by a several private philanthropic organisations.
About the Problem
The problem we are trying to solve is dementia – and what a problem it is. Dementia touches 26 million individuals around the world, including 230,000 Australians, and best predictions suggest this will quadruple by 2050.
The fundamental reason for this dementia epidemic is the ageing of modern society. For example, the fastest growing age group in Australia at the moment is the 80-year olds. And with each 5-year increase in age after 65 years, the risk for dementia doubles.
The implications of these forecasts are alarming. If we continue business-as-usual, then dementia will overtake cardiovascular disease as the #1 killer of Australians by the 2030s, and by 2060 we will need to spend as much on dementia-related care as the entire current health budget. And all this with proportionally less workers to pay for it.
Dementia is in our opinion the greatest medical challenge of our times, and carries enormous sociological and economic implications.
About the Solutions
The status quo must not prevail. Dementia prevention must become a national health priority and requires a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach.
Prevention is possible by degrees, but needs much more research. A combination of different strategies will be required, including better cardiovascular health in one’s 40s and 50s, as well as greater attention to cognitive lifestyle after retirement.
Our target is modest, but potentially profound. A 5-year delay in the onset of dementia would translate to a 50% reduction in numbers of those with the disorder. That means that by delaying dementia we can in effect prevent it in a significant proportion of the community. This also means living one’s final years independent and with a dignified quality of life.
To achieve this target the RNG is exploring and harnessing the science of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the multitude of ways that our brain changes in response to stimulatory experience. Over the past 10 years there has been an explosion in our understanding of the power and potential of neuroplasticity.
Our fundamental approach for delaying and preventing dementia is therefore by
understanding and fully exploiting the brain’s repertoire of neuroplastic mechanisms.
But what about those already with dementia? Here the problem is much more challenging because once a person is diagnosed with dementia there has by definition been a massive loss of brain cells, and more importantly, a loss of connections between brains cells (called synapses).
The Regenerative Neuroscience Group is therefore exploring an experimental strategy
that attempts to replace these lost brain cells and synapses by neural stem cell therapy.
Neural stem cells can self-replicate almost continuously (in a petri dish) and then under different conditions mature into a diverse range of brain cells. Our group has developed a method of generating neural stem-like cells from adult skin. We are currently at the pre-clinical stage of testing this in animals. If successful, we then plan to carry out human clinical trials.
This is long-range, blue-sky research, but for a problem as old and difficult as dementia, new ideas that lead to potential new solutions are needed.