One-million NWO subsidy for research into early detection of dementia and monitoring of aging

January 16, 2024

Wageningen University & Research has received a grant of over one million euros from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). This was announced by NWO last week. With the grant, researchers will identify early indicators of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Simultaneously, they will explore the molecular mechanisms of these disorders in connection to dietary patterns and lifestyle.

In the new study, scientists will compare blood, brain, and cerebrospinal fluid samples from individuals with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, with those from subjects aging healthily. They will employ chemical imaging and artificial intelligence to uncover signals at the molecular level that can aid in the early-stage diagnosis of these diseases.

Detect protein aggregates

It has long been known that certain biological building blocks (proteins) clump together in individuals with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, a phenomenon known as protein aggregation. However, it is unclear how this aggregation contributes to the diseases. The current project uses these protein aggregates to monitor the progression of ageing and the onset of these conditions. "Protein aggregates are diverse: they vary in shape, size, and chemical composition," explains Francesco Simone Ruggeri, Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry and Physical Chemistry and Soft Matter. By studying the protein aggregates with specialised microscopes (nano-scopes) combined with other techniques like spectroscopy, the chemist aims to intricately map these differences.

The researchers suspect that aging and each stage of disease progression are accompanied by aggregates with a distinct, characteristic composition or form. We will characterize and group all these types of protein aggregates," says Ruggeri. This way, they hope to link protein aggregates of a specific shape, structure or chemical composition to the early stages of healthy ageing versus neurodegenerative disorders. Such indicators, known as biomarkers, should aid doctors in earlier disease detection.

Nutrition and lifestyle

The study also explores the relationship between dietary patterns, lifestyle, and the aforementioned protein aggregates in ageing and disease. Ruggeri states: "We know that Mediterranean-like diets protect against diseases and affect protein aggregation; we are trying to link information from the molecular to nutritional level." The outcomes of the research are anticipated not only to simplify the detection of neurodegenerative disorders, but also to provide guidance on nutrition and lifestyle to prevent these diseases. To achieve this, Ruggeri undertakes the project with Prof. Lisette de Groot and Dr. Yannick Vermeiren in the field of human health and nutrition, and with Dr. Annemien Haverman in the field of healthy lifestyle and consumption.

The NWO grant supports two PhD candidates and two postdocs over a period of six years. Ruggeri states: Ruggeri: “Our mission is to help fight the impact of devasting disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s on families and society, with the goal of living longer and better.”

Emerging Key Technologies

Ruggeri's project is one of nine research initiatives receiving funding from NWO’s ‘Emerging Key Enabling Technologies’ (KIC) call. This call aims to foster innovative, groundbreaking ideas, focusing on technologies showing promise in academia with substantial potential for practical application. Emerging key technologies have the potential to become highly influential in the long term, contributing to industrial and/or societal impact.

The project, called NanoNU-Marker, is led by Francesco Simone Ruggeri (Organic Chemistry), in collaboration with Prof. Lisette de Groot (Human Nutrition & Health), Dr. Yannick Vermeiren (Human Nutrition & Health) and Dr. Annemien Haverman (Consumption and Healthy Lifestyle).


  • Bruker Nano Surface, USA
  • Photothermal Spectroscopy Corporation, USA

Collaboration partners:

  • Department of Neurology and Bru-BRAIN, University Hospital Brussels, Belgium
  • Neuroprotection and Neuromodulation (NEUR) Research Group, Center for Neurosciences, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium
  • NeuroBioBank of the Institute Born-Bunge, Belgium
  • Department of Neurology, Antwerp University Hospital, Belgium
  • Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Translational Neurosciences, University of Antwerp, Belgium
  • University of Cambridge, United Kingdom