Spotlight on... Professor Dennis Chan

Dennis Chan, sitting in a grassy meadow with trees and wooded hills in the dista
Dennis Chan, sitting in a grassy meadow with trees and wooded hills in the distance
This week, to mark World Alzheimer’s Day, we meet Dennis Chan, Professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Dennis tells us about his research into how VR can help the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (ICN) and also a consultant neurologist in Sussex. My main academic focus is the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease using tests that probe the functions of the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, the first brain regions affected in the disease. To this end, for clinical studies I use VR-, AR- and app-based tests designed by my ICN colleagues to identify changes in spatial navigation that may herald the onset of disease. This links with work undertaken alongside collaborators in the UCL Dementia Research Institute and Sainsbury Wellcome Centre and studying the spread of AD molecular pathology and its effect on the function of neurons in the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus such as grid cells and place cells.

This research work complements my NHS practice, within which I run a memory clinic specialising in diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease prior to dementia onset.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I did my PhD in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology back in the Pliocene era, aka 1988-1991. After finishing my medical degree and junior medical training I returned in 1998 to do a second research doctorate at the Dementia Research Centre before completed my specialist training as a neurologist. After taking up senior lectureship posts in Sussex then Cambridge, I came back to UCL in 2020 as a senior academic neurologist.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

I cannot in truth say I’m proud of anything I’ve achieved so far. This is not false modesty, simply a reflection of my opinion that the work is still to be done.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list

In collaboration with colleagues at UCL and elsewhere, we aim to address a major challenge in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by determining how pathology at the molecular and cellular levels results in the occurrence of the clinical disorder. We have successfully used this approach to identify behavioural changes that may herald the onset of AD, and my plan is to apply a similar approach to uncover mechanisms that may protect against the disease.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Album: A tie between Mahler’s second symphony, a work of extraordinary grandeur, and Hawkwind (1974) Hall of the Mountain Grill. Anarchic space rock hippies who spawned Lemmy and created their own genre of music.

Film: Dune (2021). Hoping that this answer will be replaced next year by Dune 2.

Novel: Iain M Banks (1996) Excession. Far future sci-fi from a much-missed writer with incomparable imagination and humour. Anyone who gives spaceships names like Of Course I Still Love You and Poke It With a Stick gets my vote. (I think I might be coming across as a bit of a geek with these answers...)

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Two theoretical physicists are lost on top of a mountain. Theoretical physicist number one pulls out a map and peruses it for a while. Then he turns to theoretical physicist number two and says: "Hey, I’ve figured it out. I know where we are."
"Where are we then?"
"Do you see that mountain over there?"
"Yes."
"Well... THAT’S where we are."

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

Assuming I’m not allowed to invite some recent and current world leaders and feed them poorly prepared fugu fish, then the selected guests would have to be amusing or edifying. Preferably both. As well as my family, who would not wish to miss out, invitations would be sent through the temporal vortex to Archimedes, Hypatia, Douglas Adams, Richard Feynman, Madeleine Albright, and Phoebe Waller Bridge. Oh and I would commission Rembrandt to paint the scene.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don’t follow establishment orthodoxy, don’t search under the spotlight, always be prepared to ask the hard questions and always ensure that you have a sound scientific rationale for your work. Don’t do "salami science" and churn out findings that add incrementally to science, cross academic disciplines to bridge knowledge gaps.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I am a food obsessive and harbour plans to retrain as a chef when (or if) I retire.

What is your favourite place?

Am I allowed two? One is my family home in West Sussex. The other is Slovenia, a tiny country with an unfair allocation of crazily deep caves, turquoise mountain rivers and Arcadian meadows.
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