In late 2013, after attending an opening event at UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), philanthropist and Brisbane local Robyn Hilton made an important decision about a cause that was very close to her heart.

The cause was to further knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease, which is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behaviour.

Alzheimer’s disease accounts for more than half of all dementia cases, and one in four Australians over 85 are diagnosed with dementia.

Mrs Hilton donated $500,000 to create The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship to honour the memory of her late husband Peter Hilton, who passed away in 2011 from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

The fellowship will support an outstanding early-career researcher over five years based at the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research (CJCADR). The centre is Australia’s first and the only facility focused entirely on research into the prevention and treatment of dementia.

“Peter was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in February 2000, at the age of 66, after retiring from his career in law,” Hilton said.

Peter completed a Bachelor of Laws at UQ in 1966, and was appointed a judge of the Family Court of Australia in 1991.

Hilton, like many touched by family members with dementia, says the impact of his diagnosis was profound.

“Some time after the initial shock of the diagnosis, you start to feel helpless because there’s no known cure, there’s no timetable for the inevitable cognitive decline, there’s little effective medical treatment,” she said.

She describes dealing with Alzheimer’s disease as “feeling your way in the fog”.

“Each case is unique, depending on the type of dementia, the personality of the sufferer and which part of the brain is primarily affected,” Hilton said.

The primary role of The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship will be to explore the interface between biological and physical research in memory and learning and how these functions are disrupted in dementia, and develop procedures to test and manage these dysfunctions.

“I knew QBI was conducting valuable research into brain diseases, including dementia, and to have a centre dedicated to researching ageing dementia highlights the obvious need for research in this field,” Hilton said.

World-renowned neuroscientist and Director of the CJCADR, Professor Jürgen Götz, said the fellowship had the potential to help unlock how dementia developed and how it could be be treated in the future.

“More than 250,000 Australians are currently diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s being the most common form of the disease,” Götz said.

“With many patients needing to be institutionalised as the disease progresses, the toll of Alzheimer’s on the patients and their families can be devastating.

“To date, Alzheimer’s disease is incurable. The Peter Hilton Research Fellowship will help us forge ahead with research to better understand Alzheimer’s disease and to develop new approaches for therapy and ultimately, prevention.”

Dementia is the nation’s third leading cause of death, after heart disease and stroke.

This article originally appeared in UQ Contact Magazine Winter 2014