Global pharmaceutical companies are partnering with eight of Britain's biggest universities in the world's largest research effort into the causes of and possible treatments for dementia.

The public-private consortium will be studying data gathered on 2 million individuals.

Dubbed the United Kingdom Research Platform, the partnership will focus on finding the origins of dementia by keeping track of volunteers age 50 and older participating in existing studies, including the Million Women Study and UK Biobank, organizers said.

The goal is an improved understanding of risk factors for dementia, the possible triggers of the condition, and what factors might either accelerate or arrest its progression, the UK government's Medical Researcher Council said. It's taking what researchers call a "whole body" approach.

"We now know that neurodegeneration can be linked to changes taking place in parts of the body seemingly unrelated to the brain and many years before dementia is diagnosed," said project researcher Dr. John Gallacher of Cardiff University.

"So it's imperative that we look at the different stages of disease development: people who are yet to develop dementia, those who are known to be at risk of developing it, and those who are already in the early stages of the disease," he said.

Key pharmaceutical companies taking part in the research effort include GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.

The new research platform would help Britain achieve a goal of doubling its research funding, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said.

"This new £16 million ($27 milliion) UK Dementia Platform will create the world's largest-ever study group for research into dementia, ensuring that data is freely available to support the work of international scientists in this very important area," he said.

The funding for the initiative was announced at a gathering of dementia experts convened in London June 19, which issued a call to meet a goal of discovering effective treatments or a cure for dementia by 2025.

Dementia, including its most common type, Alzheimer's disease, afflicts some 44 million people around the world. That figure could top 135 million by the middle of this century, the campaign group Alzheimer's Disease International said.

In the United States, the economic cost of dementia is more than $157 billion annually, the Rand think tank has estimated.

Sufferers of dementia and their loved ones often face both crippling financial costs and devastating emotional tolls that can wreak havoc on families.

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