By Wynne Parry
Age brings wisdom, but Alzheimer’s disease can take it, and so much more, away. Yet, after more than a century of research, scientists are still working to understand how this degenerative disorder robs the brain of the basic functions that have carried someone through a lifetime. Likewise, they have yet to fully delineate the factors that put someone at risk, or that protect them. Because this complex disease is not well understood, options for treating it remain limited.
“Alzheimer’s remains a knot in need of much more research to untangle,” said Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D., executive director of the FAU Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute. Despite the challenges, he remains optimistic. “I think we’re going to make some tremendous strides, but we have got to be realistic about the investment it takes, at many levels.”
Researchers in fields across FAU are securing funding to tease out much needed insight on Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Their work opens the door for more promising treatments — and for hope.
Carmen Varela, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, is among those to receive funding recently. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Research Fellowship to Promote Diversity $149,871 award will fund research in her lab on the relationship between sleep and memory.
Although this is her first foray into research explicitly related to Alzheimer’s, Varela is an expert on one of the brain functions most ravaged by Alzheimer’s and other dementias: memory. Sleep, a deceptively simple activity, supports it by allowing the brain to stabilize memories and integrate them with prior knowledge.
Research suggests that disruptions to sleep, such as waking up frequently and changes in the rhythms that characterize brain activity during sleep, can emerge early in the progression of Alzheimer’s, even before a patient receives a diagnosis. By studying sleeping rats, Varela and her team hope to better understand these disruptions and, ultimately, to lay the scientific groundwork for a method for diagnosing and monitoring Alzheimer’s and other dementias based on sleep. Funds from the fellowship are supporting experiments looking to link rats’ movement and brain activity as they sleep with their brain activity.
“Sleep patterns are relatively easy to monitor non-invasively, as compared to blood tests or brain imaging, which are often used in these disorders,” Varela said. “If you can track sleep, then you have a way to monitor the progression of the disease at home, on a daily basis.”
FUNDING A BETTER FUTURE
Researchers at FAU received funding to investigate Alzheimer’s disease and dementia from perspectives that range from the molecular to the social. Here’s a look at some of these projects:
Lung-Ching Chang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mathematics in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, is participating in the following National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants.
People living in rural areas are more frequently affected by Alzheimer’s and related dementias than residents of cities or suburbs. Chang is a co-investigator on a NIH grant to investigate this disparity. The principal investigator is James Galvin, Ph.D., of the University of Miami (UM).
"Alzheimer’s remains a knot in need of much more research to untangle."
— Randy D. Blakely, Ph.D., Executive Director, Stiles-Nicholson Brain Institute
Methods for detecting the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia generally depend on invasive tests that are not accessible to many people, such as those without insurance. As co-investigator on another NIH grant, Chang is working with Galvin and his team at UM to test a more accessible approach to screening.
Research suggests that seniors who have access to parks have better brain function and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Chang is a co-investigator on an NIH grant investigating how improvements to neighborhood environments can prevent cognitive decline, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and allow the elderly to age at home. Lilah Besser, Ph.D., also of UM, is the principal investigator.
The following three projects were funded by the Florida Department of Health’s Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program.
Like other areas of medical research, Alzheimer’s has a diversity problem: Most studies have focused on white, non-Hispanic patients. Postdoctoral fellow Idaly Vélez- Uribe, Ph.D., and her mentor neuropsychologist Mónica Rosselli, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of psychology in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, want to know how bilingualism and other experiences common among Hispanics might alter risk.
Growing evidence suggests that cholesterol deficiency may contribute to aging-associated brain disorders including Alzheimer’s. Qi Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor, department of chemistry and biochemistry, College of Science, is investigating whether or not rebalancing brain cholesterol can reduce or even reverse neurological degeneration.
Using cells in culture and mice, Howard Prentice, Ph.D., professor of biomedical science in the Schmidt College of Medicine, will investigate the ability of sulindac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, to protect against harmful neurological changes that occur in Alzheimer’s.
MORE ARE ON THE WAY
These FAU investigators recently learned they are winners of new grants from the Florida Department of Health.
Taking advantage of his recent discovery of a new gene that supports neural health in the simple worm model C. elegans, Blakely and Maureen Hahn, Ph.D., managing director of the FAU Neurobehavior Core and research associate professor in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, seek to understand why the human version of this gene increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Lisa Ann Kirk Wiese, Ph.D., associate professor, Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing, will conduct a study that aims to positively impact the health of rural Floridians by demonstrating the best avenue for increasing early rates of Alzheimer’s disease detection and treatment in rural underserved communities.