Teaming up to explore warning signs of Alzheimer’s

As the U.S. population ages, Alzheimer’s disease continues its insidious infiltration of the minds and families across our country. Although the vast majority of individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s are over the age of 65, onset at earlier ages is becoming more common. Over time, the disorder leads to behavioral and personality changes, memory loss, confusion, inability to learn new material and deterioration in language and motor skills. It is progressive, and, in later stages, Alzheimer’s patients lose the ability to communicate. Today, it is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

In collaboration with the state-funded Texas Alzheimer’s Research Consortium (TARC), James Hall, PhD, participates in group and individual research to improve early diagnosis, treatment and prevention of the disease afflicting more than 5 million Americans. TARC consists of five of the state’s leading medical research institutions. Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Texas Tech Health Science Center, UNT Health Science Center and University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio hope to identify the genes and biomarkers associated with the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Hall serves on the TARC neuropsychology committee for the UNT Health Science Center, advising on protocols for neuropsychological testing and reviewing proposed research projects. Each institution within the consortium conducts research and contributes genetic and blood biomarker data on Alzheimer’s patients and healthy control subjects to the shared Texas Alzheimer’s DataBank.

"Our short-term goal is to gain a better understanding of the nature of the disease," Hall said. "Over time, we hope to establish further understanding of those factors that contribute to the onset on Alzheimer’s and, from that, create methods to decelerate or prevent progression of the disease."

Hall specifically focuses on the relationship between depression and Alzheimer’s disease in which certain clusters of depression symptoms seem to be related to the development of the disease. Individuals with a history of depression are at a greater risk for developing the disease.

The Health Science Center’s Thomas Fairchild, PhD, vice president for the Office of Strategy and Measurement, and Janice Knebl, DO, endowed professor and recipient of a Reynolds Foundation grant for research in aging, are active in TARC’s research efforts. Fairchild serves as the TARC principal investigator for the Health Science Center, and Knebl is clinical director.

The first state funding for Alzheimer’s research in Texas history was approved in 2005 by the 79th Texas Legislature, which appropriated $2 million to fund TARC’s first two years of set-up, volunteer recruitment and data collection. In 2007, Texas lawmakers nearly doubled the state’s investment in the consortium. Most recently, state lawmakers approved another $6.8 million for TARC over the next two years to build on its early work, recruit more volunteers (including those with mild cognitive impairment) and launch a new research focus on the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on Hispanics.

"The more we understand about the early stages of Alzheimer’s and the level of impairment it has on brain functions, the more we can intervene to slow down or even prevent the disease in the future," Hall said.

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