UC Berkeley receives grant for research on Alzheimer’s disease, dementia

Susan Landau/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley recently received a $47 million grant to fund brain imaging for a project dedicated to studying the effects of lifestyle changes on cognitive function from the U.S. National Institute on Aging — part of the National Institutes of Health, or NIH.

According to associate research neuroscientist Susan Landau, the grant will provide funding for research concerning brain imaging of participants in clinical trials, for a project known as the U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk, or U.S. POINTER. Funded by the Alzheimer’s Association, U.S. POINTER’s goal is to determine whether lifestyle changes can reduce a patient’s chances of cognitive decline.

“Instead of giving a drug, the idea is to see if we can change someone’s lifestyle practices and change their cognitive trajectory to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Landau said.

According to the NIH website, U.S. POINTER’s lifestyle interventions include exercise, nutrition, cognitive and social stimulation and health self-management. It currently has 2,000 participants across five locations in the United States.

As an addition to U.S. POINTER, the U.S. POINTER Neuroimaging Ancillary Study will be looking at MRI and positron emission tomography, or PET, scans of the participants’ brains. The imaging study will feature scans of 1,250 of the 2,000 U.S. POINTER participants.

“We want to identify people who might eventually develop Alzheimer’s and dementia and stop it before they get it,” Landau said. “We would hope to design an intervention that would be preventive and change cognitive trajectory.”

According to Landau, MRI scans allow researchers to measure brain size, blood flow, white matter integrity and brain activity, among other things. PET scans allow researchers to identify beta-amyloid and tau proteins in the brain, which signal Alzheimer’s disease.

Landau mentioned that while this research may not help those who already have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, she hopes to prevent future cases of them.

“U.S. POINTER is designed to determine what lifestyle interventions have a tangible impact on our brains,” Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Berkeley News. “The addition of brain imaging is an important component that could provide the roadmap for brain health to reduce the risk of dementia before symptoms have a chance to appear.”

Currently, 5.8 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that is also the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association website. The Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability, which U.S. POINTER is modeled after, concluded that lifestyle intervention had a greater cognitive benefit than health education, according to the NIH website.

“We are hoping to see people who engage in rigorous lifestyle change see benefits in brain activity and a positive cognitive trajectory,” Landau said.

Contact Suryan Bhatia at [email protected].