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UEF’s frontotemporal dementia researchers secure prestigious Academy of Finland and EU funding

Frontotemporal dementia researchers at the University of Eastern Finland have secured significant funding from the EU’s JPND programme for research into early onset dementias. The new project aims to identify early synaptic and other physiological changes in early frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, as well as molecular-level mechanisms associated with them. The findings will help to develop better tools for early diagnostics and treatment of these diseases.

The EU’s Joint Programme – Neurodegenerative Disease Research, JPND, is an innovative European research initiative seeking to tackle challenges caused by neurodegenerative diseases. The three-year projects selected for JPND funding will address the prevention, diagnosis and better treatment of neurodegenerative diseases through effective and high-level European research collaboration.

The University of Eastern Finland is the coordinator of the Pre-diagnostic early synaptic disturbances in neurodegenerative diseases (SynaDeg) project, which was selected for JPND funding.

Early signs of dementia may include disturbances in the function of synapses that connect neurons. The objective of SynaDeg is to identify early changes in the brain’s synaptic neurotransmitter systems and in other physiological functions in frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, which could easily be monitored even at home, such as behaviour, activity or sleep. Patients’ synaptic changes will be studied using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) methods. In addition, cerebrospinal fluid, blood and skin samples will also be taken from patients with an aim to study disease-specific synaptic biomarkers and to create induced pluripotent stem cell-based neuron models to explore the molecular-level mechanisms of synaptic changes.

The project is expected to deepen our understanding of the disease mechanisms of frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies, and to produce new disease-specific biomarkers, measured from cerebrospinal fluid or blood, and other diagnostic tools for the challenging early diagnosis and treatment of these diseases. The findings can also accelerate the development of applications for personalised medicine.

“This project will strengthen Kuopio’s role as a prominent and international hub for research into frontotemporal dementia and its disease mechanisms. In addition, the project will bring together leading European scientists in an innovative way, which we believe will accelerate scientific breakthroughs,” says the SynaDeg project’s leader, Research Director, Adjunct Professor Annakaisa Haapasalo from A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences at the University of Eastern Finland.

“A strong focus on translationality plays a key role in this project. This means, for example, that changes observed in the induced pluripotent stem cell-based neurons developed from a patient can be compared to patient-specific biomarkers, neuroimaging findings and clinical picture. Translationality increases the impact of research and enhances dialogue between different disciplines,” says Research Group Director, Adjunct Professor Eino Solje from the Institute of Clinical Medicine at the University of Eastern Finland. Solje also acts as the project’s vice coordinator.

Haapasalo and Solje are actively involved in the Finnish Frontotemporal Dementia Research Network, FinFTD, from which also Professor Anne Remes and Neurologist Johanna Krüger at the University of Oulu participate in the SynaDeg project. The European partners in the project are PhD Olivia Belbin at the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau in Spain, Professor Henrik Zetterberg at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and Professor Peter Heutink at the German Centre for Neurodegenerative Diseases, DZNE. The SynaDeg consortium also collaborates with Professor Esa Mervaala at Kuopio University Hospital, and with Professor Barbara Borroni at the University of Brescia in Italy. The overall budget of the project amounts to approximately 1.2 million euros.

The SynaDeg consortium works in close collaboration with the Alzheimer Society of Finland and with the Italian Frontotemporal Disease Association, AIMFT, with an aim of increasing awareness of early onset dementias in health care and society, reducing the stigma around these diseases, and providing patients and their families with support.

JPND is a highly competitive funding instrument, which grants funding to high-level European research consortia.  This year, 170 proposals were submitted in the JPND call, and 14 projects were selected for funding. The SynaDeg project coordinated by the University of Eastern Finland is the only project involving Finnish researchers.

JPND projects are funded in collaboration between national funders and the European Union. In Finland, funding is granted by the Academy of Finland.

For further information, please contact:

Research Director, Adjunct Professor Annakaisa Haapasalo, A.I. Virtanen Institute for Molecular Sciences, University of Eastern Finland

Research Group Director, Adjunct Professor Eino Solje, Institute of Clinical Medicine - Neurology, University of Eastern Finland