Podcast: Aston University researchers discuss how brain injury research led to a better understanding of dementia causes

Podcast: Aston University researchers discuss how brain injury research led to a better understanding of dementia causes

April 15, 20242 min read

  • Professor Roslyn Bill discusses her research into brain cell membranes with Dr Matt Derry
  • Serious brain injuries and dementia are affected by the flow of water through a protein called aquaporin-4 in brain cell membranes
  • Aquaporins are responsible for clearing the build-up of waste products in brain cells in a process Professor Bill likens to a ‘dishwasher for your brain’.

Professor Roslyn Bill, co-founder of Aston Institute for Membrane Excellence (AIME), joins Dr Matt Derry to discuss her research into brain cell membranes in the latest Aston Originals podcast.

Water moves in and out of brain cells through tiny protein channels in the cell membrane called aquaporins. One in particular, aquaporin-4, is the focus of Professor Bill’s research.

In 2020, she was lead author on a paper published in prestigious journal Cell on how the channels open and close and how this can be controlled. Uncontrolled water entry into brain cells can occur after head trauma, causing swelling which leads to severe brain injuries of the type suffered by racing driver Michael Schumacher after a skiing accident. Finding drugs to control this water movement could lead to treatments to prevent brain swelling in the first place.

This research into brain swelling and the contribution of aquaporins led Professor Bill to research into Alzheimer’s, a common form of dementia, which is also related to the action of aquaporins. Alzheimer’s is caused by a build-up of waste products in brain cells. In a process Professor Bill likened to a ‘dishwasher for your brain’, aquaporins are responsible for clearing this waste as we sleep.

Professor Bill was selected for an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) in 2023, which is being funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The funded project will further investigate the process, and whether it might be possible to develop a drug to boost the ‘brain dishwasher’, which could be taken to slow or even prevent cognitive decline due to ageing.

Bringing together this biological research with the polymer research of AIME, chemists like Dr Derry will help in the drug development and could also lead to totally different applications.

Professor Bill said in the podcast to Dr Derry:

“We can take the knowledge that we have of how these proteins work in cells and try and apply them to interesting applications in biotechnology. And this is where the sort of work that you (Dr Derry) do comes in, where you can develop plastic membranes, polymer membranes, and then take learning from the biology and try and make really, really good ways of purifying water, for example.”

For more information about AIME, visit the webpage. The website also includes links to the previous AIME podcast and details about open positions.

Connect with:
  • Roslyn Bill
    Roslyn Bill Professor of Biotechnology

    Professor Bill's research on water flow in the body has revealed how to develop drugs that prevent brain swelling after injury or disease.

  • Dr Matthew Derry
    Dr Matthew Derry Lecturer in Chemistry

    Dr Derry conducts research on block copolymer self-assembly using small-angle X-ray scattering.

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