By LYNN LOFTON
A University of Mississippi Medical Center researcher is part of an international team doing important work to identify the gene that underlies healthy information processing. The research is the first step toward knowledge that can help understand cognitive age and age-related illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Tom Mosley, M.D., is part of a consortium of investigators around the world that’s been in existence five years and is sharing individual studies. The group he leads is researching memory and how cognitive thinking changes with age.
“These are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” Mosley said. “It’s impressive to have an international group that’s not competing but is sharing discoveries and recognition.”
He stresses that so far the research is first steps — but very important first steps. “It has taken years to get to this point. We’ve found a gene that relates to how quickly someone puts together information, and that has long-term implications,” he said. “Once we understand that function and what’s influencing the information processing speed, we can duplicate that gene protein and possibly develop that into drugs for diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“From this research, we hope to have ways to screen for things as early as possible. This kind of screening will help us identify people who may have cognitive problems in the future. We’re a long way from it, but it’s like seeing a light on a distant shore.”
Mosley, a native of Louisiana who’s been in Mississippi since 1988, is excited about the research but as a scientist he is cautious. “In the short term, this study doesn’t help you, but we must have this first step,” he said. “Now I think the pace will pick up because we’ve had three quick papers written about it. We’re trying to move quickly, but it’s a long, complicated process.”
The most exciting thing is that now the researchers are able to triple the size of the study group from approximately 30,000 people to 100,000 people. “We’re not as likely to miss things in the follow up study,” Mosley said. “We’re leading a lot of this research right here in Mississippi.”
Previous studies in families and in twins have shown genetics play an important role in cognitive functioning, but finding the specific genes or genetic regions has proved difficult, requiring a combination of large sample sizes and detailed genetic measurements. The study, which recently published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, is the largest genetics study to date to link a specific genetic mutation and information processing speed. “However, the genes that underlie thinking skills remain largely unknown,” Mosley said. “Our team has identified a genetic mutation that may help unravel this puzzle.”
Mosley’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health. At UMC he is director of the Memory Impairment Neurodegenerative Dementia (MIND) Center and senior scientist on the study. He stopped seeing patients about five years ago. “It’s been terrific and a privilege for me to lead this group,” he said.