Researchers at UBC are conducting nationally-recognized research on brain health.
Dr. Robin Hsiung, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medicine and a staff neurologist at the UBC Hospital Clinic for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders researches neurodegenerative diseases. Hsiung’s current study aims to predict early dementia risk and provide intervention for cognitive decline.
Neurodegenerative diseases broadly refer to any condition where the nervous system’s cells deteriorate or stop functioning. Alzheimer’s and dementia are often confused as being the same condition; however, Hsiung emphasized that they are distinct.
“Dementia is an umbrella term for any cognitive decline,” said Hsiung. “Anyone who has normal cognition, [and] it’s declined as they age, [has] dementia [and] you have to reach a certain level of decline that is actually bad enough to affect your daily activities.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, making up 60–70 per cent of all cases. Other kinds of dementia include Lewy body dementia, which is closely tied to Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, which can be caused by multiple small strokes, and even forms of dementia caused by infections like HIV.
A decline in short-term memory is characteristic to Alzheimer’s disease and can have multiple detrimental effects, since short-term memory is a stepping stone to remembering long-term information. Regarding patients, Hsiung explained, “If you cannot even form short-term memory, then they will have difficulty forming any memory.”
Clinical treatments for dementia patients are very limited and often address symptoms rather than the root cause.
One method involves increasing neurotransmitter production — chemicals in the brain for communication between nerve cells — to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Though elevating neurotransmitter levels appears to improve quality of life, it is not a cure.
“It helps their memory and attention, but it doesn’t really reverse the disease,” said Hsiung. “It may help the symptoms for a year or two and stabilize them briefly, but eventually people are still going to progress.”
Hsiung and his team hope to change the treatment landscape by identifying biomarkers, a measurable biological characteristic that indicates some medical phenomenon.
“The biomarkers aim to diagnose people before they have full-fledged dementia. We want to diagnose people earlier and earlier,” said Hsiung. Biomarkers can appear long before symptom onset to signal disease and even act as targets for treatment.
PET scans and spinal fluid samples can detect biomarkers like amyloid changes in the brain. These changes can present themselves up to 10 years before the disease’s onset. The role different biomarkers play is hotly debated, making research like Hsiung’s essential.
However, while PET scans and spinal fluid are helpful, they are not practical for routine clinical use. Hsiung said he is excited to develop accurate blood biomarkers in the future — only a blood test would be required, which is accessible and less costly.
Hsiung noted UBC’s research has been put on the international scope by discovering two genes called C9ORF72 and TDP 43. Not much is known about C9ORF72 but it appears to be the most common cause of frontotemporal dementia, while TDP 43 is a common feature of frontotemporal dementia and related disorders.
UBC has provided valuable research and Hsiung’s team is hopeful for the future.
“I think the clinical trial program, our clinic, is so successful because of [Hsiung’s] leadership and his knowledge,” said team member Soo Yung.
This article is part of The Ubyssey's neuroscience supplement, Big Brain Time. Pick up our latest print issue on campus to read the full supplement.