Meet our researchers: help needed before the memory fails
Cognitive diseases is the collective term for a number of diseases that affect the brain and destroy the ability to think and act logically, among which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. At Lund University, Professor Oskar Hansson and his colleagues are carrying out research to find methods that improve diagnosis as well as quality of life for people with cognitive diseases.
Currently, approximately 20 per cent of the population develop a cognitive disease during their lifetime. We live longer and with an increasingly aging population, there will be increasing numbers who become ill. To gain a better understanding of the disease, researchers at the unit for clinical memory research in Malmö and Lund are researching both patients and healthy individuals.
Oskar Hansson’s research team focuses on the Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in particular. To improve diagnosis and treatment, the researchers are searching for answers to where in the brain the disease starts.
Both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are often difficult to diagnose early in the development of the disease and the researchers have shown that changes occur in the brain between ten to twenty years prior to the patient experiencing any clear symptoms. The diseases often begin slowly and it is difficult to say exactly when and how the disease began. People often only access care when the symptoms have become obvious, and when the underlying disease changes are already clearly present.
“We want to find and develop biomarkers that improve the diagnosis and simplify the methods to detect the disease at an early stage. Validated biomarkers that identify the diseases in a reliable way would immediately reduce the societal burden and increase the quality of life for sufferers, among other things by speeding up symptomatic treatment, avoiding unnecessary examinations and creating reassurance for the patients”, says Oskar Hansson.
Breakthrough with developed biomarker
A breakthrough came in 2006 when Oskar Hansson, together with his research colleagues, developed biomarkers that can be measured in cerebrospinal fluid, resulting in 90 per cent reliable results in identifying Alzheimer’s disease at an early stage of the disease. Following this, over the years researchers have refined and standardised methods of diagnosis for the disease.
“It is really exciting to see an increasing number of countries around the world using cerebrospinal fluid tests in routine clinical healthcare to improve the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, cerebrospinal fluid markers are being used in clinical trials to detect individuals at an early stage of the disease. In this way, it is possible to research whether new medicines can stop the disease before significant parts of the brain are affected and the changes become irreversible.”
In addition to the cerebrospinal fluid markers, the research team has used a PET camera to establish where in the brain Alzheimer’s disease begins. They also use magnetic cameras to study how these brain changes affect the brain’s function and structure even before the symptoms arise.
In recent years, the research team has developed reliable markers in blood tests for Alzheimer’s.
“One of our focus points right now is to develop methods so that a correct diagnosis can be made quickly in the primary healthcare sector. This has been a major step forward even internationally considering that over half of the sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease do not receive an accurate diagnosis within primary healthcare today.”
Wanting to solve the mystery
The researchers’ findings are significant for both society and the patient. Simple methods that can detect dementia diseases at an early stage reduce the costs within healthcare, and the patient does not need to be subjected to invasive procedures and treatment can begin at an early stage of the development of the disease.
"To gain a better understanding of these diseases we need to start with the individual.”
The research on dementia diseases is a dynamic field and researchers at the memory clinic collaborate nationally and internationally. They also often work with different pharmaceutical and medical technology companies to improve methods of diagnosis, including trials that evaluate new medicines.
“To gain a better understanding of these diseases we need to start with the individual. Together with other international research teams, we work with bioinformatics where data from clinical examinations, genetic analysis, biomarkers and brain imaging are used to be able to gain a better understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s and other cognitive diseases.”
Text: Tove Gilvad
Photo: Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation
Cognitive diseases (often called dementia diseases) are a significant societal challenge. Approximately 160 000 people in Sweden today are diagnosed with a cognitive disease and the number is constantly increasing. Alzheimer’s is the most common form and comprises between 60 and 70 per cent of all cases. Currently, cognitive diseases cost Swedish society almost SEK 63 billion per year, according to the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare.
Alzheimer’s disease changes gradually in patients over time and affects cognitive functions such as memory, behaviour and perception of surroundings. Having a cognitive disease leads to significant suffering for the individual and their loved ones.
Current medicines for Alzheimer’s alleviate the symptoms; however, a cure is yet to be found. In the research community, intense research is currently underway to produce new medicines in the field and on how current medicines can be used better.
Name and title: Oskar Hansson, professor at Lund University and consultant at the memory clinic at Skåne University Hospital in Malmö
Background: Born in 1975. Started on the medical degree programme in 1994. Became a professor of neurology at Lund University in 2017. Oskar Hansson works one day per week at the memory clinic. He is the physician in charge of the clinic, which has recently moved to new shared premises near Triangeln in Malmö.
Something I have learned from: I always aim to be transparent in my research, methods and results, although it has occurred that other research teams have copied my ideas. However, the most important thing is of course that the results are produced, which can improve life for those suffering from a cognitive disease.
Interests: I love long distance trail running with others. The more difficult the trail, the more fun it is.
Superpower: others would probably say that I often think outside the box and have good intuition for what is correct or not. I also have a great inner drive to want to improve things and I am probably good at ensuring we meet the goals we set in the research team.