This Cambridge Life

The neuroscientist hoping to slow down dementia and speed up Darwin

When she’s not on the river captaining the Darwin College Boat Club, PhD student Jessica Walsh is investigating a possible link between leaky blood vessels in the brain and the onset of vascular dementia. Jess’ research has led to the launch of a clinical trial, which is testing a new treatment to slow down the progression of this debilitating disease.

I find the brain fascinating to study as it’s what makes everyone who they are. However, the brain is also the site of some of the most debilitating and life-changing diseases, among them dementia. I first studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at Bristol University and absolutely loved it, and now I’m in my third year of a PhD in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences.

I’m investigating the biggest cause of vascular dementia. It’s called small vessel disease and happens when the walls of the small arteries in the brain become damaged. The biggest risk factor is age but the disease can also be accelerated by other risk factors like high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. I’m interested in whether the damage to these small vessels causes them to become leaky and whether it is this leakage that leads to damage in the brain and, ultimately, dementia.

I look at the brains of people who are at risk of developing the disease. I’ve recruited 60 participants to take part in the study. They have to lie in a combined MRI/PET scanner for 90 minutes and have two injections of dye to allow us to see these leaky vessels. At first I was worried about whether we’d get enough participants, but I’ve been surprised at how many people are keen to help.

Over the course of the study I’ve met so many interesting people. My participants have got so much life experience. Their number one piece of advice has been to travel the world. I think I will take my participants up on this when I finish my PhD – at least for a few months.

I’m a people person so this project is perfect for me. I knew I’d get bored if I was just sitting in a lab, but with this study I have the best of both worlds as I get to spend time with patients when I’m recruiting them, scanning them and cognitively testing them, but then also get time away when I’m analysing the data and writing my thesis.

My research will hopefully contribute to developing a treatment for vascular dementia. My project has led to a clinical trial which launched earlier this summer. The clinical trial involves using a drug to try to stop the small vessels from leaking and therefore slow down the progress of the disease.

I grew up in Loughborough and went to a state school. I was always quite good at science but also loved doing creative things. Although I’ve gone down the science route, the more I do, the more I realise that science can be creative too. Creativity is required in all areas of science, from designing a study to coming up with new ways of interpreting interesting results. Scientific advances require creative people thinking outside the box to put forward new suggestions and ideas.

It was a spur of the moment decision to join the Darwin College Boat Club. I’d never done rowing before, but I enjoyed it and did quite well. Darwin is a friendly and inclusive club who train a huge number of people up from beginners every year. I was asked to be Vice-Captain last year and this year I became Captain.

I’ve learnt just as much from being Captain as I have from doing a PhD. We have around 50 people in the women’s squad so it’s a lot of responsibility. There’s always lots to do from sorting out the budget, to organising training, to selecting crews. Juggling a PhD alongside captaining the club can, at times, be a challenge – but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I’d recommend joining a team to anyone starting University. If you’ve had a bad day there are other people there who can help you out, who understand what you’re going through. When you see each other every day you can’t help but become really close friends.

Cambridge is just a crazy place. I don’t think there is anywhere quite like it. You just have to immerse yourself in it and embrace it for all of its weird quirkiness. To anyone starting at Cambridge I’d say get out there, join clubs, talk to people and enjoy it.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series, which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Cooks, gardeners, students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.