By BECKY GILLETTE
Alzheimer’s disease is devasting illness that robs victims of their memories and ability to complete simple tasks. It takes a huge toll on families and strains the healthcare system. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it is the most expensive disease in America with annual costs for Alzheimer’s and other dementias estimated at $277 billion.
At the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), vitally important research into the causes and possible preventions and treatments for this disease are being done at The MIND (Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia) Center.
Researchers and clinicians at The MIND Center are conducting multiple industry-sponsored clinical trials in patients with a diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, a prodromal stage of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, said Dr. Juebin Huang, associate professor of neurology at The MIND Center at UMMC.
“One of the major focuses of these clinical trials is to develop medications that can remove or reduce the formation of amyloid plaques, a key pathological component that leads to nerve cell death and brain deterioration,” Huang said. “The eventual goal of these trials is to see if the investigational medications can slow down or halt the progression of Alzheimer disease. Data from early phases of these trials are promising.”
Huang is the leading investigator and Andrew Majeste, RN, BSN, is the study coordinator for the clinical trials program. Patients and family who are interested in learning more about these clinical trials can contact Majeste at (601) 984-5490.
Dr. Gwen Windham, UMMC professor of medicine, division of geriatrics, said The MIND Center’s research on vascular contributions to cognitive decline and dementia risk is widely cited in the scientific literature and is considered a driving force among scientific communities that promote early detection and treatment of vascular risk factors.
There is also help provided to patients. The MIND Center Clinic, along with many other clinics specializing in the evaluation and treatment of memory complaints, often provides counseling and treatment to patients when they identify lifestyle and vascular risk factors.
Researchers feel a sense of urgency about the work because of the rapidly growing number of Americans who are expected to develop Alzheimer’s. Windham said by 2050, the prevalence of dementia will quadruple, by which time one in 85 persons worldwide will be living with the disease.
“Research estimates that delaying both disease onset and progression by even one year would result in around nine million fewer cases in 2050,” Windham said. “It is now estimated that up to 50 percent of cases of dementia have mixed pathology, most commonly, Alzheimer’s pathology and vascular pathology. We do not yet know how to prevent Alzheimer’s pathology, but we have an arsenal to prevent cardiovascular disease and stroke. We and many others are optimistic that vascular preventive efforts, particularly if begun earlier in life, will reduce cognitive decline and the number of people living with dementia.”
The MIND Center Director Dr. Thomas Mosley has done work that led to discoveries that cognitive decline begins much earlier than previously thought. Brain changes such as atrophy, vascular disease and silent strokes are surprisingly common, even in healthy, middle-aged people. Mosley’s work using state-of-the-art brain imaging and new genetic technologies has led to discoveries including that the cause of these abnormalities may be associated with cardiovascular disease.
Windham said the failure of numerous pharmacologic interventions in later life and after symptoms have begun speak to the importance of identifying the beginning stages of the pathological changes earlier in life.
“By intervening earlier to protect the brain and/or stop processes that lead to neurodegeneration, we believe we can be more effective in preventing cognitive decline and dementia later on,” Windham said. “Ongoing studies use specialized imaging techniques to measure pathological changes in the brain, such as amyloid plaques and tau protein deposits, before treatments start and during treatment interventions to observe effects of the medications on pathological processes. These imaging modalities, including brain MRI, and amyloid and tau PET scans are also widely used, as surrogate biomarkers to monitor safety and effectiveness, in clinical trials such as those designed to develop medications to hopefully slow down or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease at early stage.”
The MIND Center currently has 16 active studies funded by the National Institutes of Health totaling over $16 million in federal research dollars. The MIND Center’s flagship Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities Neurocognitive Study is one of the largest and most comprehensive investigations ever undertaken to identify mid-life risk factors for late-life cognitive decline and dementia.
“In addition, we are launching a new, landmark study called the UMMC MIND Center – Mayo Clinic Study of Aging that seeks to determine factors in middle and older age that contribute to healthy aging including protection against cognitive decline, dementia, and physical disabilities that are common in older age,” Windham said. “Led by The MIND Center, this study is the culmination of more than two decades of ongoing research between investigators at The MIND Center and global research leader Mayo Clinic. Physical and cognitive impairments are more common in southern states, including Mississippi, and in racial minorities such as African Americans. The Study of Aging will help to answer questions about race and geographical disparities that we anticipate will help reduce the geographical and racial inequities in health.”
The MIND Center currently employs more than 80 staff and faculty at UMMC and has cumulatively brought in over $90 million in federal research funding. Windham said this is not only good for UMMC, but stimulates economic growth in Mississippi. According to a study conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, every dollar invested in research at medical school and teaching hospitals results in $2.60 of economic activity.
“Additionally, The MIND Center has strong philanthropic support from the private sector and the backing of the Mississippi legislature which has appropriated funding to support its research and clinical services for the past five years,” she said.
Pop singer Cyndi Lauper, a Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award-winner, appeared in a benefit concert in Jackson for The MIND Center on Oct. 25.
For more information about The MIND Center’s research or clinical care, visit umc.edu/mindcenter or contact 601-815-4237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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