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Our 1,000 Brains Project will help change lives

The brain is what defines us and makes us who we are. Good brain health enables us to build relationships with our loved ones, learn new things, solve problems, communicate and make sense of the world around us.

Unfortunately, there are more than 400,000 Australians living with neurodegenerative diseases. These diseases can be rapid, dramatic and are almost always heartbreaking. Dementia has recently become the second most likely cause of death for Australians – and that is on track to become the leading cause of death.

We must do something to stop the rise of this disease. This is why NeuRA and the Garvan Institute are embarking on the 1,000 Brains Project, a ground-breaking research venture to identify the elements in the brain that cause these life-changing neurodegenerative diseases.

Researchers know that certain factors, such as smoking or poor cardiovascular health, increase the likelihood of developing dementia.

But it remains unclear why some people develop these neurological diseases as they age, while others do not. This is what we hope to solve through the 1,000 Brains Project.

This study will offer hope for people like Joy Mallett, whose family has been ravaged by dementia.

The onset of dementia in Joy’s husband, Don, rapidly changed their lives. His behaviour changed, which led him to quit his job. Soon afterwards, Don was diagnosed with dementia.

Joy said it was very challenging to bear witness to Don’s declining health.

“I’d come home from work and find cigarette burns in the carpet. One day I couldn’t find the kettle in the kitchen but I could see all the welding parts had melted. Don must have gone to make a cup of tea and gone outside and forgotten about it. I eventually found it out in his shed,” Joy explained.

Sadly, Don died from dementia at the relatively early age of 66. Then, their daughter, Lisa, also became ill. Lisa is now aged in her fifties and has such advanced dementia that she cannot recognise her own children.

Joy’s sadness when describing her family is raw. Dementia is indiscriminate and a very cruel disease to everyone that it affects.

“I think Lisa knows who I am. She looks at me, but she hasn’t been able to speak for years, eight years or so. She looks at me and then she just takes off, walks off. It’s very hard,” Joy said.

It is stories like these that motivates Claire Shepherd, the Director of NeuRA’s Sydney Brain Bank and the leader of the 1,000 Brains study to investigate how dementia, and other neurodegenerative disease, are caused and what we can do to prevent them from occurring.

“Increasing the number of brains we have, and the range of neurodegenerative disorders that we can examine under a microscope, will give us a better understanding of the cellular changes that occur as a result of these diseases,” she said.

“This research could have a major impact on those who have a family history of these kinds of diseases and can help us to give people hope by making great advances.”

“Our vision is to better understand the cause of these diseases and what we can do to delay their onset or improve treatments to reduce their impact. It’s extremely exciting” said Dr Shepherd.