Alzheimer’s disease research at the University of Michigan is getting a $10 million boost: a major grant that will fund a broad array of efforts aimed at finding and fighting the causes of the disease and other memory conditions.
Today, the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, will officially award a five-year grant to U-M’s Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. For the last 16 years, MADRC has been the only federal Alzheimer’s disease center in Michigan; it is currently one of only 33 nationwide.
The new money will continue to fund the center’s Memory and Aging Project (UM-MAP), which is a long-term study on memory, aging and dementia. Vital information gathered from this study over the last 15 years has allowed researchers to gain new insights into Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders.
The money will also fund studies that test new treatments and ideas on how to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. U-M researchers are currently seeking participants for studies of new medications, an experimental “Alzheimer’s vaccine” approach and memory-protecting agents.
The grant will also support a special effort to encourage more participation in studies by African Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans, so that research results better represent the entire American population. Older people who do not have memory loss or dementia are also needed for studies, to act as comparisons and to help researchers understand the aging brain better.
Several scientific research projects will also receive funding through the new grant, including advanced brain imaging studies that may lead to better ways of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and predicting its progression. Laboratory research on a potential way to disable a key Alzheimer’s protein will also receive funding.
“This grant will support five distinct cores, or groups of researchers, from around the University, as well as three very exciting projects,” says MADRC director Sid Gilman, M.D., F.R.C.P., the William Herdman Professor of neurology at the U-M Medical School. “The entire effort integrates with other U-M Alzheimer’s disease activities, including comprehensive clinics for patients and our participation in national studies.”
About 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease — a number that’s expected to rise to 10 million in the next 25 years. That prediction creates a critical need for more research on all forms of dementia, which include not only Alzheimer’s disease but other conditions that impair memory, thinking ability and language.
“As the population gets older, the prevalence and cost of Alzheimer’s disease will escalate, too,” says Gilman. “The total cost of the disease is estimated at $100 billion now, and that’s conservative. Better treatment and prevention is urgently needed.”
Gilman notes that past funding from NIA for centers like MADRC has made it possible for scientists to get a better handle on what Alzheimer’s disease is, how it differs from other dementia-causing disorders, and what happens in the brain as the disease progresses. Tremendous progress in understanding the disease has been made in the last 15 years, he notes, including the general consensus among experts that a protein called beta-amyloid builds up in the brain and helps bring about the death of brain cells that leads to the disease’s tragic progressive symptoms.
But Alzheimer’s disease still has no cure. Nor is there any surefire treatment to slow patients’ long, slow decline, although a handful of medications has been approved for use and appear to help some patients. And patients and their families often don’t receive a firm diagnosis of whether dementia is caused by Alzheimer’s disease or another disorder that mimics it.
Meanwhile, although researchers know that advancing age and a family history of dementia raises an individual’s risk of developing it themselves, not enough is known about specific genetic and lifestyle factors that might be involved. Researchers also want to learn more about how at-risk people can reduce their risk; early signs from population studies suggest that people who use cholesterol-lowering drugs and certain pain medications that reduce inflammation, and those who maintain a vigorous intellectual routine, may be at a lower risk.
The new MADRC funding, and funding for other centers around the country, Gilman says, should help bring all of these answers closer. “I see a time in the not-too-distant future when we will be able to treat this disease, and decrease the rate at which it progresses,” he says. “Perhaps we’ll find ways to stop progression, and even treat the disorder before it gets started in people who are at high risk. That’s the ultimate aim: to provide a safe treatment in advance of the start of dementia.”
To get there, he emphasizes, researchers need the help of people with and without memory loss willing to take part in research studies of all kinds. Individuals who want to find out more about U-M Alzheimer’s research may visit MADRC’s website at sitemaker.med.umich.edu/madrc or call the MADRC recruitment coordinator at (734) 615-8462 or clinical trials coordinator at (734) 647-7760.
The new NIA grant will allow U-M to add more participants to its database of older people with normal memory, mild to moderate memory loss, and suspected Alzheimer’s disease. The UM-MAP has already enrolled more than 1,000 Michigan residents since it began in 1989, hundreds of whom are still alive and allow U-M researchers to follow their progress. Patients and families who agree to participate in research studies make an enormous contribution to future generations and the advancement of knowledge about Alzheimer’s disease, Gilman says.
The new grant will help U-M increase its special efforts to involve members of ethnic and racial minorities in research studies. A major part of that effort is based in Ypsilanti, Mich., where U-M researchers have established a clinical research office that reaches out to the African-American and Hispanic population in the area. The Minority Satellite Diagnostic and Treatment Center, as it is called, is directed by Lourdes Velez, M.D., of the U-M Department of Family Medicine.