Alzheimer’s disease… in cats? – Lorena Sordo BVMS MSc

Lorena Sordo

I have always loved all kind of animals and, since I have a memory, my biggest dream was to become a vet and to help all the animals in any way I could. My dream came true in 2006, when I graduated from vet school. I practised as a vet for 8 years at my own small animals veterinary clinic, where I acquired a great interest in animal welfare. A few years later, I moved to Scotland to study a master in applied animal behaviour and animal welfare at The University of Edinburgh, which later led to my PhD.

I am, proudly, one of those persons who like to surprise others with rare facts that not many people know, so I enjoy enormously when people ask me about my PhD. What I enjoy the most is to see their faces when I tell them that I study dementia in cats. As a veterinary surgeon myself, I consider that I am not easily impressed, but I must confess that I was really shocked the first time I heard about aged cats getting Alzheimer’s disease-like symptoms. I thought that disease was uniquely human.

After three years of studying cognitive dysfunction (“dementia”) in cats, I am still amazed of how similar this condition is to human Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Old cats produce very similar age-related changes to AD, such as the accumulation of proteins in the brain (i.e., beta-amyloid and phosphorylated tau) that are believed to lead to cognitive decline. As part of my PhD, I am looking at the presence and distribution of these two proteins in the brains of cats of different ages, including those that were diagnosed with cognitive dysfunction. It is my aim to compare these findings to those that occur in the brains of people affected with AD to determine whether the domestic cat is an accurate animal model for the study of this disease.

I am lucky enough for not having any close relatives with AD; however, I volunteered befriending people with different types of dementia. It was such a rewarding experience. I always thought that I was the one giving, giving them some of my time, interesting conversations, affection… but after a couple of visits I realised that I was the one receiving the most from them, their smiles, their stories, their happiness, but more importantly, their love. This experience also made me realise how urgent it is to better our understanding of this condition and how important animal models are for this purpose.

Since then, I have been very interested in not only learning more about cognitive dysfunction syndrome in the domestic cat and other species of animals, but to learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. Nowadays, I believe that it is impossible to look into “dementia” in animals without referring to AD. At the same time, it is impossible to think about AD without referring to the animals that may work as models for its study.

Driven by this thought and thanks to my recently awarded Soulsby Fellowship, I will be able to travel to the United States to visit and learn from one of the world leading researchers in the field of AD, who works in the diagnosis and treatment of AD by using animal models. We will be using advanced automated techniques for the quantification of protein deposition (i.e. beta-amyloid and phosphorylated tau) and its extension in the brains of the cats. By doing this, we will be able to draw better comparisons between species (i.e., cats and humans) and to provide with more robust evidence that the domestic cat is an accurate model for the study of AD. In addition, we will better our understanding of cognitive dysfunction in aged cats, which will help us to improve their quality of life and their welfare.

Lorena Sordo