8 December 2006

University of Queensland researchers are examining a possible link between a history of depression and anxiety and the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, later in life.

The research team, headed by UQ School of Medicine Associate Professor Gerard Byrne, was the only Queensland group and one of just eight nationally to receive support from a special $4.4 million allocation for dementia studies administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Dr Byrne, Head of the Discipline of Psychiatry at UQ, said the three-year, $530,000 grant would help fund an extension of the UQ–Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH) longitudinal study of ageing in women (the LAW Study), led by UQ School of Medicine’s Professor Soo Keat Khoo

The LAW study, believed to be the only one of its kind in the world, has tracked the health of 511 women aged between 40 and 80 over the past five years through clinical examinations, questionnaires, face-to-face interviews, blood samples and special testing.

Aspects covered include sociodemographics and nutrition, lifestyle factors, cardiovascular health, hormone levels, mood changes, memory function, balance, bone health, fat/lean mass composition and oral health.

The UQ research team, including Professor Khoo, Associate Professor Robert King (Psychiatry) and Dr Nancy Pachana (Psychology), are particularly interested in the development of anxiety and depression in the study group.

Dr Byrne, Director of Geriatric Psychiatry at the RBWH, welcomed the NHMRC funding as the longitudinal study had, until now, relied mainly on generous donations from private benefactors especially the Asian/Chinese Community and industry through the RBWH Research Foundation.

Dementia currently affects 200,000 Australians with 1000 new cases diagnosed each week. Given the nation’s ageing population, further research into the causes and effects of dementia, the leading cause of the non-fatal national disease burden, was more important than ever before, Dr Byrne said.

Alzheimer’s disease affects one in 25 Australians over the age of 60. Symptoms include memory lapses, problems with thinking of the right word for common objects, difficulty making decisions, confusion and personality changes, such as irritability.

One aspect under investigation by the team would be whether Alzheimer’s disease led to greater levels of depression and anxiety or whether existing symptoms of depression and anxiety predisposed people to developing Alzheimer’s disease, Dr Byrne said.

“We will also look at the possible role of variations in several genes in the development of symptoms associated with dementia. One of these genes is responsible for transporting lipids (fats) around the brain and another is associated with mood and personality,” he said.

Dementia leads to a decline and loss of intellectual abilities such as impaired memory, judgment and abstract thinking as well as personality changes. It can be distressing for both the person directly affected as well as those closest to them with patients often requiring long-term care.

Media inquiries: Dr Byrne (3365 5148 or 3365 5152) or Shirley Glaister at UQ Communications (3365 2339).