Dr. Rong Zhang, a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, has been awarded a four-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to research the connection between exercise and brain function as people age.
"There are many mysteries about cerebrovascular function in healthy seniors and how it's different in those with mild cognitive impairment, which leads to Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Zhang said. "We also know little about whether exercise training improves brain blood flow and brain function. Our goal is to unlock these mysteries and search for better preventions and treatments for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia."
The most common cause of dementia in the United States is Alzheimer's disease, which affects one in 10 people over 65 and nearly half of those who reach age 85.
Many people with mild cognitive impairment eventually develop Alzheimer's disease, although some remain stable and others even return to normal. Dr. Zang's research project, "Mild Cognitive Impairment: Cerebrovascular Dysfunction and Exercise Training," aims to better understand why people develop cognitive impairment and how the condition worsens.
"The importance of this research is paramount as we race to learn more about aging, brain function and what causes dementia and other age-related brain diseases," said Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the IEEM and the study's senior collaborator. "This work will help us better understand cognitive impairment and has the potential to one day make a significant impact on the prevention and treatment of the disease."
The IEEM, founded as a joint program between Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center, features ten major laboratories tightly integrated and organized intellectually along the "oxygen cascade" -- the path oxygen follows through the body from the external environment through the lungs, heart, and skeletal muscle to perform cognitive function and physical activity.
Dr. Zhang's project will focus on how exercise impacts blood flow to and within the brain, called cerebral perfusion or cerebrovascular function. The objective is to test the hypothesis that regulation of blood circulation within the brain is impaired in patients with mild cognitive impairment, leading to brain atrophy, white matter lesions and cognitive impairment. He'll also research whether endurance training improves cerebrovascular function and if that slows brain-function decline in patients with mild cognitive impairment.
"Research into the causes and treatments of brain diseases has traditionally focused on patients from the neck up," Dr. Zhang said. "Cardiovascular research has focused on the heart, lungs and blood vessels from the neck down. We want to bridge that divide -- and find whether there's a connection between the two."