Dementia has touched almost every Australian family in some way, with more than 400,000 Australians currently living with the neurodegenerative disease.

For Australian Rotary Health PhD scholar Lauren Whyte, it was her Pa who developed Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia.

Lauren is now working on her PhD on Alzheimer’s Disease at the University of Adelaide. Her project specifically investigates whether lysosomal dysfunction is a potential risk factor.

“Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by the accumulation of two proteins, amyloid beta and tau, in the brain of affected people,” Lauren said.

“Both proteins are capable of being degraded in a compartment of cells called the lysosome, which is the cell’s garbage disposal and recycling unit. There is evidence that the lysosome does not work properly during Alzheimer’s disease.”

Building on this evidence, Lauren has looked at the function of the lysosome in a novel mouse model.

“We have shown that a number of key lysosomal proteins are dysregulated in this model, and that they accumulate around amyloid beta in the mouse brain.”

However, it is still yet to be determined whether dysregulation drives the disease or is caused by it.

“To test this, we are investigating whether inherited mutations in lysosomal genes have an effect on the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-related proteins in the mouse brain,” Lauren said.

“Our research may provide some insight on risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, which could ultimately help to ensure patients are identified and treated early, before irreversible brain damage occurs.”

Lauren hopes that her research will contribute to the increasing knowledge we are gaining about dementia, so that one day soon, it won’t be so familiar to so many people.

“It is not only thousands of Australians who live with dementia every day, but also their loved ones who are in the trenches, caring for a husband, a wife, a parent or grandparent who is slipping away from them.”

“The unfortunate reality is that they are currently powerless to do any more than provide love and make their loved one’s life as comfortable as possible, whilst watching the regression.”

Since September is World Alzheimer’s Month, Lauren’s biggest tip would be to open up the conversation about Alzheimer’s Disease.

“If you are currently struggling with the early stages of the disease yourself, or if you have a close family member suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, you will almost certainly find people who have had similar experiences to you, who can empathise and provide support.”

“Second, the more we talk about Alzheimer’s disease and raise awareness, the more likely funding will be directed towards Alzheimer’s disease.”

As a scientist, Lauren has no doubt that they will work out what causes Alzheimer’s disease, but stresses that they need the resources to be able to perform this research.

“I have received a top-up scholarship throughout my PhD from Australian Rotary Health. Given that the standard PhD scholarship stipend is less than the minimum wage, this top-up has really helped to support me and enabled me to focus on my research.”

Over the next five years, Lauren hopes to complete her PhD and continue researching Alzheimer’s disease as a postdoctoral fellow.

“I think there is a huge amount that scientists can achieve in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and I’m excited about what we will learn.”

“It is crucial that Alzheimer’s research continues to receive the support it does so that progress can be made.”

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