Our group seeks to understand and measure how major dementias ‘work’ as whole-brain diseases and how they produce complex symptoms.
Brain Signatures Study Overview
Brain Signatures of Auditory Information Processing in the Degenerative Dementias
Purpose of the study
The Brain Signatures study is conducted by the Brain Behaviour Group, led by Prof Jason Warren, at the UCL Dementia Research Centre. Many people with dementia have difficulty understanding or responding to speech and other complex sounds in daily life, and this can be a major source of distress and disability. This study investigates the ways in which the brain’s processing of complex sounds (such as speech, music and environmental noises) and other information from the senses changes in different dementia diseases. We assess hearing abilities and brain activity when listening to sounds, and compare this in patients and healthy volunteers. This comparison will allow a better understanding of the brain changes in different forms of dementia, and may be used in the future to aid diagnosis, and help develop and assess treatments.
Patients with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, or primary progressive aphasia, and cognitively-healthy volunteers (>50 years old). Information from cognitively well study partners is very important to the study.
What is involved?
Participation in this study is completely voluntary. This study involves a two-day (preferably consecutive or in the same week) in-person visit to the Dementia Research Centre (8-11 Queen Square, London). Participants will be asked to take part in a number of different activities: (1) experimental and standardised psychology tasks, (2) hearing tasks, (3) interview sessions with questionnaires, and (4) a brain MRI scan. Participants may also be asked to take part in an eye tracking session and/or complete an EEG recording. We may ask participants to complete online sessions (via Zoom) to finish any tasks we are unable to complete in-person.
- Our mission
We consider ourselves ‘dementia physiologists’. Our work aims to identify and define the cognitive and physiological changes that link damaging proteins spreading through brain networks to specific symptoms experienced by people with dementia, particular the frontotemporal dementias and Alzheimer’s disease.
Our core focus is the processing of complex sounds, such as speech, voices and music: such sounds are fundamental to everyday functioning and wellbeing and make intense processing demands on the brain that sensitively expose the effects of dementia. Around this core, we pursue other, broadly interconnected themes in nonverbal and embodied cognition, cerebral plasticity, temporal processing, sleep pathophysiology, and computational modelling of proteinopathies. Our work is directly inspired by and grounded in our experience of meeting and caring for people living with dementia and their supporters, particularly via the Cognitive Disorders Clinic at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and the national Primary Progressive Aphasia Support Group and Rare Dementia Support based at UCL.
Our vision for this work rests on three inter-related aims:
- to open up new avenues to identify which proteins are causing dementia and the functional impact of those proteins in an individual person, including ‘proximity markers’ that herald the imminent onset of dementia – currently this is difficult to reliably predict and to detect
- to guide the development and targeting of better diagnostic tools and treatments – at present we do not understand how particular pathological proteins give rise to large-scale brain changes, and only an improved physiological understanding will help us identify the dementia disease responsible earlier and more accurately and to design drug and other interventions to modify or reverse the disease process
- to assess rapidly whether treatments are working and to harness the brain’s residual capacities – we hope that new markers based on changes in brain function will reflect protein effects more directly and dynamically than is currently possible, allowing treatments to be modified before irreversible brain damage occurs and also building on the brain’s retained ‘plastic’ ability to adapt itself to damage.
In our work, we use a variety of tools in combination, because they give us complementary perspectives on how complex dementia diseases work. Examples include:
- new cognitive neuropsychological tests, and surveys about symptoms and daily life functioning for patients and caregivers
- autonomic (pupil, heart rate, skin), electromyogram (facial and other muscle) and sleep recordings
- structural MRI and diffusion tractography
- functional neuroimaging (fMRI and MEG)
- computational modelling of dementia evolution in a ‘synthetic brain’
We collaborate with a number of other research groups at UCL, nationally and internationally, to harness their perspectives and expertise and to build awareness of the importance of dementia among basic scientists. Our collaborators include:
- Prof Doris-Eva Bamiou, UCL Ear Institute
- Prof Gareth Barnes, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, UCL
- Dr Marc Busche, Dementia Research Institute, UCL
- Prof Karl Friston, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, UCL
- Prof Andrea Halpern, Bucknell University, USA
- Prof Betty Tijms, Amsterdam UMC, Netherlands
- Dr Adeel Razi, Monash University, Australia
- Dr Cathy Rubin, Macquarie University, Australia
- Genetic Frontotemporal Dementia Initiative (GenFI)
- Consortium of clinicians and scientists
- Prof Derk-Jan Dijk, University of Surrey
- Prof Tim Griffiths, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne
- Prof Lauren Stewart, Goldsmiths, University of London
- Prof James Kilner, Clinical and Movement Neurosciences, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology
- Prof Gill Livingston, Division of Psychiatry, UCL
- Dr Neil Oxtoby, Centre for Medical Image Computing, UCL
- Prof Jonathan Roiser, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL
- Prof Liz Sampson, Division of Psychiatry, UCL
- Prof Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL
- Prof Rosemary Varley, Psychology and Language Sciences, UCL
Our work has been generously supported by Action on Hearing Loss, Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, the Guarantors of Brain, Brain Research UK, the Dunhill Medical Trust, the Economic and Social Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the National Brain Appeal, the NIHR UCLH Biomedical Research Centre, the Wellcome Trust and the Wolfson Foundation.
- Our research team
- Elia Benhamou, PhD student (Brain Research UK): music and predictive cognition
- Chris Hardy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow (Pauline Ashley – Action on Hearing Loss Fellow): speech processing and neural plasticity
- Jess Jiang, PhD Student (National Brain Appeal): dynamic markers, sleep and neural plasticity
- Jeremy Johnson, Clinical Fellow and PhD Student (Association of British Neurologists): hearing and auditory cognition
- Mai-Carmen Requena-Komuro (Wellcome Trust): temporal perception and awareness
- Harri Sivasathiaseelan, Clinical Fellow and PhD Student (Wolfson Foundation): nonverbal vocalisations and socio-emotional cognition
- Jason Warren, Professor of Neurology and Consultant Neurologist: Principal Investigator
All of our work is clinically focused and directly informed by meeting and caring for people living with dementia. Without them, none of our research would be possible - they work with us, teach us and inspire us.