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Research at the Cerebral Function Unit

With over 800,000 people living with dementia in the UK alone - a number that is expected to rise rapidly with our ageing population - research into dementia is a top priority. The Cerebral Function Unit is a clinical and research centre with an international reputation for high quality dementia research.

The aim of the unit is to improve clinical services, care and treatment for people with dementia through increased recognition, improved diagnostic accuracy and greater understanding of the clinical and neuropathological features, genetic basis and underlying pathogenic mechanisms. 

Our research is focussed on five complementary and converging themes:

  • Characterisation of clinical features
  • Neuropathology
  • Molecular Genetics
  • Neuropsychology
  • Neuroimaging


1. Characterisation of clinical features

Conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body disease and the frontotemporal lobar degeneration syndromes are all associated with a unique pattern of clinical features. An ongoing research theme is the precise characterisation of these clinical features, which is crucial for accurate diagnosis, treatment and clinical management. The unit has been instrumental in the recognition and characterisation of non-Alzheimer forms of dementia, and the development of international diagnostic criteria for frontotemporal dementia, and is part of the Alzheimer's Research Trust Manchester Network.


2. Neuropathology

The Manchester Brain Bank, located within the SRFT Biomedical Facility and directed by Professor David Mann is one of 5 National Brain Bank Centres and a unique resource, enabling international collaboration. Post-mortem examination of brain tissue allows confirmation of clinical diagnosis and is essential in the continued development and refinement of clinical diagnostic criteria. Analysis of the molecular and histopathological changes in brain tissue can elucidate the underlying pathogenic mechanisms, which is essential in the development of pharmacological treatments.  


3. Molecular Genetics

Research is focussed on the identification of genetic risk factors for neurodegenerative disorders and examination their influence on clinical presentation. Collaborative work with Professor Stuart Pickering-Brown at the University of Manchester and colleagues at the Mayo Clinic in Florida has led to the identification of mutations in the tau and progranulin genes on chromosome 17 in frontotemporal dementia. This ongoing work is funded by an MRC Research Fellowship to Professor Stuart Pickering-Brown and is supported by DeNDRoN (Dementias and Neurodegenerative Diseases Research Network).

As part of an international collaborative study, the identification of a mutation in the C9orf72 gene, which accounts for a significant proportion of familial Motor Neuron Disease and Frontotemporal Dementia. Since then we have carried out and published retrospective clinical studies to identify distinct clinical and neuropathological characteristics of patients with this genetic mutation. 

4. Neuropsychology

Neurodegenerative conditions may result in the highly selective breakdown of specific aspects of cognitive function, which can shed light on the cerebral organisation of cognitive processes. Led by Professor Julie Snowden, current research includes the study of conceptual knowledge and language in semantic dementia, language disorders associated with progressive non-fluent aphasia, and memory and attentional processes in Alzheimer's disease.

5. Neuroimaging

Neuroimaging techniques allow us to study the precise pattern of structural and functional changes between and within conditions. This work is carried out in collaboration with the University of Manchester Biomedical Imaging Institute.

Recent work includes an investigation of clinical subtypes of Alzheimer’s disease, using MRI and PET imaging, together with detailed neuropsychology and analysis of genetic risk factors. This study was funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK.

Current projects include a neuropsychological and neuroimaging study of Primary Progressive Aphasia. Jenny Harris, research assistant and PhD student, is currently recruiting for this study, which is funded by the Edmonds Trust and the University of Manchester Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility.

Clinical Trials

In addition to the above research themes we are currently involved in some clinical trials to assess the efficacy of new treatments for Alzheimer's disease.