UMMC part of national dementia, Alzheimer's study

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — As part of its role in a national study of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the University of Mississippi Medical Center will map a more than 20-year period in the lives of thousands of people to identify risk factors for cognitive decline.

UMMC officials Tuesday announced a $26 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funding will be divided among UMMC, the University of Minnesota, Wake Forest University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The project will build on the national Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study that began in 1987. ARIC focused on risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

“We have 20 years of very carefully collected information ranging from everything from diabetes to diet and exercise, so we’ll be taking advantage of that data to look for the factors that increase risk or decrease risk of dementia,” said Dr. Thomas Mosley, a UMMC professor and one of the new study’s lead investigators.

The ARIC study began with 16,000 participants in communities across the country. Mosley said about 12,000 participants are still alive. They will undergo a new round of neurological testing for memory, processing speed and brain imaging.

With the nation’s 65-and-older population expected to double in coming years, “we’re looking at an unprecedented demographic shift” for those prone to dementia, Mosley said.

Mosley said researchers will also look at racial disparities. He said data suggests the rates of Alzheimer’s in black people may be twice that of white people. He said the reasons for the disparity are unclear and the study is expected to shed some light.

Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia that afflicts more than 5 million Americans and more than 26 million people worldwide. The disease is the seventh-leading cause of death in the country.

There are 35 million Americans age 65 or older, based on the last census. That demographic is projected to more than double by 2050.

Mosley expects the research to provide early intervention for people who are at risk of dementia-related diseases, particularly Alzheimer’s.

“Research suggested there are changes in the brain as early as in the 50s,” he said. “People who have small vascular changes in the brain, we give them memory tests and they do more poorly than those without those changes.”

UMMC will organize a team of scientists from the Mayo Clinic, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas at Houston, Boston University and Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

Mosley said the dementia examinations will begin May 2011, and it could be up to four years “before we have exciting data.”

UMMC also announced a separate campaign to raise $9 million in private funding for UMMC’s new Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia Center.

Mosley wants to recruit more scientists to expand research in dementia at the center. The new study is the first conducted under the umbrella of the Mind Center.

Lee Corlew, a member of the advisory board for the Mind Center, said she’s seen firsthand the effects of Alzheimer’s. She said some of her close relatives had the disease. Corlew said finding effective treatments is critical.

“None of us takes this journey without a lot of personal pain,” Corlew said.

The Associated Press