The causes of Alzheimer's disease are not yet well known, but some potential factors include health, lifestyle, environmental and family history, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the newly established Duke-UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) will work to better understand how to prevent, delay and treat Alzheimer's with funding from the National Institutes of Health, which is expected to total $14.8 million over the next five years. The Duke-UNC collaboration will now be recognized as one of the NIH Centers of Excellence.
"The timing for a new joint center was right," said Duke University School of Medicine professor Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer , a co-leader of the ADRC's Outreach, Recruitment and Engagement Core. "Together, the teams across the institutions bring incredible strengths to the study of the factors that influence brain aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease across the lifespan with an eye towards early interventions."
Alzheimer’s — the most common form of dementia — is "a progressive disease beginning with mild memory loss and possibly leading to loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to the environment," according to the CDC.
The NIH funding will be transformative for what Duke and UNC would be able to do for Alzheimer's research in Eastern North Carolina, said ADRC co-director Dr. Heather Whitson, a professor of medicine and director of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.
But the grant is about more than just the money, Whitson said. She said being part of the 33-center nationwide network will help North Carolina be better represented in national data on Alzheimer’s disease and will allow UNC and Duke investigators to have easy access to the data.
Together, the teams across the institutions contribute to the study of factors that influence brain aging and the development of Alzheimer’s disease, with an emphasis on early intervention, Welsh-Bohmer said in an email statement.
The center aims to provide outreach and education to the community about Alzheimer's and how to deal with it as a patient or a caregiver, Whitson said.
The ADRC also hopes to improve participation of people of color, specifically Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities, in the research studies being conducted.
“With respect to trust, many people who identify as from a minority population can be fearful of harm, either being a 'guinea pig' or being reported to government authorities,” Welsh-Bohmer said. "To this point, the effects from Tuskegee still loom large among African Americans and hinders them when considering research participation.”
Welsh-Bohmer said the ADRC plans to establish communication with leaders of underrepresented groups to make sure they are involved in every step of the research process.
“More recently, there’s a recognition that more effort has to be made to do outreach that’s farther away from where the academic medical centers are located, to do more outreach using community members from different groups more effectively and more outreach that’s multilingual,” said ADRC co-director Dr. Gwenn Garden, professor and chairperson of the Department of Neurology at the UNC School of Medicine.
Whitson said she was optimistic, and she thinks eventually there will be a cure for this disease that they would hope to find at the center — a hope shared by the rest of the faculty as well.
The ADRC hopes to discover markers or indicators that would help make Alzheimer's diagnoses earlier because treatment often is not as effective after symptoms or changes in the brain begin to show.
“It also directly helps us identify what are the targets for treatment — what’s changing in people’s bodies that are on the path to Alzheimer’s disease that we might be able to intervene with drugs or medicines,” Whitson said.
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