Southampton scientists have been awarded £28,000 to launch a pioneering study that could lead to major new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Experts at the University of Southampton hope to unlock the secrets of the devastating disease that affects more than 2,000 people in the city, by shedding light on the role of the immune system.

They will investigate how immune cells, which usually help to protect against disease, can become overactive and cause damage, by studying brain samples of those who have died with the disease.

Led by Professor Hugh Perry, pictured, the two-year pilot project will see scientists focus on immune cells called microglia, which are found in the brain and are activated when a person becomes ill to help fight infection.

Previous research has shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease have more microglia in the brain than healthy people, and that these cells are already partially activated or ‘primed’ by the disease.

When people with Alzheimer’s develop common infections, such as a chest infection, they tend to deteriorate faster.

The researchers in Southampton believe this is because infections in other parts of the body trigger these extra, primed immune cells in the brain to become overactive, leading to tissue damage and causing the disease to get worse.

By studying brain samples, the researchers want to find out where these extra microglia come from, and what underlying mechanisms cause this increase in cells.

Prof Perry said: “Although the immune system is crucial for our protection, we think the extra immune cells in people with Alzheimer’s disease may be too much of a good thing, creating a vicious cycle that could in fact accelerate people’s decline.

“If we can unpick what causes this increase in the number of immune cells in the brain, we could begin to look for ways to break that cycle.”

Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK who has funded the study, added: “We’re delighted to fund this promising new study, which should shed more light on some of the critical processes involved in Alzheimer’s disease.

“The better our understanding of the mechanisms that drive the disease, the better our chances of developing treatments that could make a real difference.”