Dr Karissa Barthelson: Race Against Dementia/Dementia Australia Research Foundation Fellow, Flinders University (South Australia)

As the latest RAD/DARF Fellow, Dr. Karissa Barthelson will be joining Flinders University (South Australia) to study whether Alzheimer’s disease and Sanfilippo syndrome childhood dementia share a common pathological basis, and whether this can be targeted by treatment strategies which could be beneficial for both diseases.

Dr. Barthelson began her academic career at the University of Adelaide (South Australia), where she obtained a Bachelor of Science (with first class Honours) and a PhD in Genetics under the supervision of Associate Professor Michael Lardelli. Her doctoral research aimed to understand the early changes which underly the inherited forms of Alzheimer’s disease using zebrafish as a model organism. She used sophisticated genetic and computational technologies and found that changes to energy production may be a driving factor for this disease. For this work, she received the prestigious Harold Woolhouse Prize, awarded to the best PhD thesis in the Faculty of Sciences for the year.

Lay Summary of Project

Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia, has been researched for over a century. To date, the complexity of this disease has been difficult to completely capture in animal models. Consequently, treatments originally developed in animals are not particularly effective in all AD cases. To discover alternative AD therapies, a different approach is required.

Tragically, dementia is not only a disease of the elderly. Currently, there is approximately 700,000 children in the world who live with childhood-onset dementia. This is a significant burden, yet the existence of childhood dementia is not nearly as recognised as AD. Unlike AD, the genetic bases of the childhood dementias are very well defined, and reliably representative animal models exist. There is a large degree of overlap in the brain and behavioural changes between AD and the childhood dementias. Therefore, the possibility arises that the disease-associated mechanisms in the childhood dementias are similar to those in AD.

My research will assess molecular-level similarities between the pathologies of AD and one of the more common forms of childhood dementia: Sanfilippo syndrome. I will study whether treatments targeting these shared pathologies are therapeutic in both conditions. My research program analysing parallel responses between AD and Sanfilippo models should reveal innovative solutions to both dementia types.

I am honoured to receive the Race Against Dementia/Dementia Australia Research Foundation Post-doctoral Fellowship. This prestigious fellowship feels extra special for me, as it brings together my passion for dementia research, and my long-standing love for Formula One. I sincerely thank Sir Jackie Stewart, the RAD Trustees and Dementia Australia for their support for me and my research, it is absolutely life changing! This unique opportunity will allow me to learn from the best minds in academia and industry, leading to new collaborations and accelerating my goal to discovering innovative solutions to dementia. I am very excited for what the next three years of my research program will bring.

Dr Karissa Barthelson