A massive federal grant will help University of North Texas researchers study Alzheimer’s

Funding from the National Institute on Aging will be used to examine how the disease affects different racial and ethnic groups.

By Alexandra HartOctober 12, 2022 1:35 pm,

To participate in this study, call 817-735-2963 or visit the Institute for Translational Research.

Alzheimer’s is one of the most common neurodegenerative diseases in the U.S. – more than 6.5 million adults are living with the condition in 2022. But despite its prevalence, this devastating disease is not well understood. Scientists are still looking for the causes of Alzheimer’s, and why some people are more likely to develop it than others.

The University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth is searching for answers through its Institute for Translational Research. And a $150 million federal grant may help researchers there get closer to uncovering clues about the disease. The funding from the National Institute on Aging is one of the largest grants ever awarded for Alzheimer’s research, and the largest grant in the history of the UNT system.

Sid O’Bryant, executive director of the Institute for Translational Research, spoke to Texas Standard about the program. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about the work that your institute’s doing in the field of Alzheimer’s research. What are some of the areas your team’s focused on?

Sid O’Bryant: Our team is focused on and trying to really uncover how this disease presents and impacts people differently, especially working across diverse communities here in Texas.

It’s my understanding that people of color, in particular African-Americans and Hispanics, experience Alzheimer’s disproportionately compared to, say, white folks. 

That’s absolutely true, and we don’t know why. So African-Americans are almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and Hispanics [are] one-and-a-half times more likely. However, the reasons for this health disparity are almost completely unknown.

Are there theories or good working models that you’re aware of?

We’re building them. So we’re absolutely looking at what are the different things that can cause the disease, not just brain plaques and tangles, but even how medical co-morbidities like diabetes and hypertension and depression, which are differentially prevalent among these groups, might actually be contributing to these health disparities.

One of the things I would imagine you have to do is you have to reach out to subjects for human research. Or is that involved in this stage of the of the study? 

Absolutely. We’re enrolling 4,500 people. So it is definitely a human subjects research study.

I’m a little surprised that it’s taken so long for researchers to focus on this. Given the dimensions of the disparities here in the way that people experience this, why has it taken so long?

It has taken a long time. And part of it is because the way most research like this happens in specialty clinics, well, there’s a ton of research showing that individuals from underserved communities normally don’t go to specialty clinics. So the way we’ve approached it is we go to the community and recruit and bring these methods to the community, which is why it’s been successful.

Say more about how you plan outreach, because that’s got to be a challenge unto itself. 

It is a monster. It’s this huge component where we do social media, we do standard media, we do grassroots. So our team is out in the community, in the DFW area daily, and we participate in and are part of almost 200 plus outreach events every year. And so, even though we’re out there, some people don’t know about us or how to reach us. People who are interested can call 817-735-2963 to see about coming on into the study.

Ultimately, how do you hope to use the data that you collect from Alzheimer’s patients?

This work is already challenging the fundamental assumptions in the field where we think amyloid or brain plaques and tangles are these core things, which they are. However, it’s far more complex. So we now have data showing that brain plaques are less common among Hispanics and African-Americans. So that has implications for, not only how to diagnose the disease, but treat it as well. So that’s where we’re going, the long-term goal of this study.

I think in the short term we will drastically expand our conceptualization of how we understand the disease, and kind of middle-term goals are to have better diagnostics and therapies out there. Long-term is to have better prevention strategies. So we’re trying to tackle it all, but it’s a big project, and it’ll take a long time. 

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