Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela says 12 per cent of dogs older than 10 develop a form of dementia similar to the type that affects humans.
“(It) has many parallels with human dementia in terms of memory loss, disorientation, agitation and also, at the level of pathology, many similarities in terms of Alzheimer plaques building up in the brain,” he told reporters at the Alzheimer’s Australia national conference in Hobart.
Dementia in dogs is more noticeable than in other animals because of the bond between the animals and their owners, he said.
“Probably the most common and the most telling sign is when dogs start to stare at walls or get stuck behind objects,” Assoc Prof Valenzuela said.
“One of the features that owners find most distressing is when they lose that sense of familiarity with the owner or recognising the owner, loss of that welcome-home behaviour.”
Researchers will grow a million cells from a skin sample near the dog’s stomach and transplant them into the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes memory.
The university’s Brain and Mind Research Institute has been working on the project for five years and has already had success with rats with memory loss.
Dog owners have volunteered their pets for the next step, which begins with surgery next month.
“What we’re hoping is a few months later we’ll see a major improvement in their clinical syndrome,” Assoc Prof Valenzuela said.
“If we were to see that, then that would be convincing evidence to then go for a human clinical trial.”
That will take time, however.
“All things going well, I think it will be three to five years,” he said.
“It’s very early days, so we don’t want to give false hope because we don’t know what the outcomes will be.
“But at least we’re trialling something new, and I think in a way that will be genuinely informative about what could happen in the human condition.”