The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) is the largest and most influential international meeting dedicated to advancing dementia science. Each year, AAIC convenes the world’s leading basic science and clinical researchers, next-generation investigators, clinicians and the care research community to share research discoveries that’ll lead to methods of prevention and treatment and improvements in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Access highlights from other days here.
Don’t miss the most important updates that took place at AAIC from Florida research champions Stefanie Wardlow and Keith Gibson.
Florida Researcher Spotlight
Dr. Jeffrey Vance, Dr. Margaret Pericak-Vance and Dr. Larry Adams discuss diversity in research, the value of in-person meetings and the latest work from the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami .
Joyce Gomes-Osman, from the Linus Health and the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, presented Recommending exercise to boost mental sharpness in your aging patients? What clinicians need to know to prescribe right, measure better, and increase buy-in.
How did you become involved in Alzheimer’s research? I was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School when I became involved in Alzheimer’s disease research. I was learning a lab technique to measure ‘neuroplasticity’, or the remarkable ability of the nervous system to reorganize, creating new functional connections. This neuroplasticity is vital to us as humans because it enables us to learn and evolve through life. Neurorehabilitation professionals harness neuroplasticity daily in their practice. Neuroplasticity also powers our memory centers in the brain. Basically, we cannot remember or learn anything without it, and I was determined to learn how to measure it well because I believed it could help clinicians treat their patients better.
I was putting together a research project to boost neuroplasticity and measure it with this novel assessment (theta-burst transcranial magnetic stimulation). Importantly, I was working on identifying a clinical condition that this work would be helpful toward. I was excited to learn about the relationship between exercise and cognition – the evidence demonstrated that neuroplasticity boosted mental sharpness precisely by also boosting neuroplasticity. This was one of the times that my personal and professional lives crossed paths. That year, my grandfather Dionisio Gomes passed away from complications associated with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). He had been bedridden for the last 8 years. I could not remember the last time we spoke, but I knew that he didn’t know who we were any more for the longest time. His loss of identity, this painful, dragged-out process made it so that many of my family members felt relief, rather than sadness when he passed.
I strive to honor my grandfather in my work. As I went back to the lab, I could find so much evidence demonstrating this established link – exercise and cognition – but with surprisingly little detail. How much exercise was it necessary to maintain mental sharpness? In thinking back to my grandfather (who in all honesty did not love exercising), what could I have told him to do if he was alive today? Would he have changed his mind if he was aware of this science and how it could impact his own life? Importantly, can I help to save other grandfathers who are still with us today?
So I am here to contribute to the great work by some of the giants in this field that has demonstrated that our health and lifestyle greatly influence our cognitive trajectory. That by committing to a healthier lifestyle it is possible to prevent (to some extent) risk of dementia. Being physically active, eating healthful meals, nurturing meaningful social connections, taking care of our sleep and mental health and keeping a healthy heart will help us ‘be healthier’, but it can help us fight this terrible disease. I am particularly passionate about increasing public awareness of some fantastic evidence already in this field. It is still incredible to think that if we addressed known modifiable risk factors at a population level, we could slash dementia cases by 40% next year.
What do you think this research means to the field? Why is it important? I am really excited about the work I am presenting this week at AAIC. It was done in 2 parts. The first part was done with a dear colleague from Brazil, Prof. Augusto Oliveira, PT, PhD. He has a wonderful setup in the beautiful city of Maceio, northern Brazil. It is like a University of the Golden Years, and a community service component of UNCISAL, his University that offers free courses for older adults on a variety of topics. What was known before we started this project was that only about a third of people globally are sufficiently physically active (meaning that they do at least a half hour of moderate intensity physical activity five times per week). So in this study, we undertook a qualitative study to find out from older adults “why don’t you exercise more?”. They taught us some very interesting insights. I won’t spoil the results (please watch the session!), but I will say that they wanted personalized advice from their healthcare providers (I do provide detailed feedback during the session).
The second part was done at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, at my former lab. This was an interesting project in sedentary aging adults who participated in a 2-month fully supervised exercise program. We wanted to see if this exercise dose would be sufficient to improve cognitive performance, neuroplasticity and fitness. My AAIC presentation will focus on fitness and cognitive outcomes. We demonstrated that 2 months of exercise was sufficient to improve both cognitive performance and fitness, and there was an association between the two. A super cool angle is that we used a simple measure of fitness that only requires a watch and a heart rate monitor (called heart rate recovery). We believe that finding surrogate markers of fitness is exciting because the gold-standard fitness test (peak oxygen consumption testing) is costly, expensive and requires specialized equipment and personnel. An interesting way that the results of these two studies ties together is that we need to get better at helping individuals to help themselves. Greater engagement is likely with personalized interventions that individuals co-create with their healthcare providers. But this requires transferring responsibility to the individual to do things such as measure their own progress, which is where measures like heart rate recovery fit in nicely. I would also like to thank my Mentors in all of this work, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Tatjana Rundek, MD, PhD and David Loewenstein, PhD. It was definitely a team effort!
Anthony Griswold, from the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, presented Ancestral Analysis of the Presenilin-1 G206A Variant Reveals it as a Founder Event on an African Haplotype in the Puerto Rican Population.
How did you become involved in Alzheimer’s research? I am an Assistant Professor at the John P Hussman Institute for Human Genomics (HIHG) at the University of Miami. I have been working on Alzheimer’s for approximately 8 years there. I am a geneticist that studies how variation in our DNA can put us at risk or protect us from complex diseases including AD. Specifically, the HIHG has a long history of working with large international collaborations on sequencing the whole genomes of many individuals to identify genetic factors for Alzheimer’s.
Do you have a personal connection to the disease? I do not have a direct personal connection to the disease. However, I think all of us that work in Alzheimer’s feel an extremely personal connection to the ultimate goal of helping patients, caregivers, and families to alleviate the burden of the disease.
What do you think this research means to the field? Why is it important? My research is interested in understanding the genetics of Alzheimer’s, particularly in individuals of diverse ancestries. This includes African Americans and Hispanics, who have been under-represented in much research. By expanding our studies to these populations we hope to find population-specific variants, such as the presenilin 1 mutation I am presenting at AAIC that is specific to the Puerto Rican population. This will ensure that the new therapies and treatments will be applicable to all individuals with Alzheimer’s.
Brian Kunkle, from the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics, Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami, presented Diverse Ancestral Populations and the ADSP.
How did you become involved in Alzheimer’s research? My work in Alzheimer’s research began through a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Margaret Pericak-Vance at The University of Miami. During this fellowship I was able to work with an excellent team on large multi-institutional projects focused on discovering the genetic risk factors involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
Do you have a personal connection to the disease? Yes, while I was an undergrad at Shippensburg University, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She was in her 60s and the experience of watching her worsening symptoms was heartbreaking to me and my family. It led me to pursue a career in public health and provides me with the drive to help find therapeutic or preventative options.
What do you think this research means to the field? Why is it important? Most genetic studies in Alzheimer’s disease to date have been conducted in populations with European ancestry. The lack of data in other ancestries impacts our ability to find the genetic factors that could influence disease, and ultimately our ability to develop successful therapeutics. It also could exacerbate already existing disparities associated with the disease as we know that Black, Hispanic and Latinx populations are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-Hispanic White populations. Therefore, one of the major focuses of my research, particularly in the Alzheimer’s Disease Sequencing Project, is to increase the ancestral and ethnic diversity of the Alzheimer’s genetic studies we conduct with the hope that this will expedite prevention strategies and therapeutics that work for everyone.
National Dementia Research News
Get the latest dementia science and research news in the palm of your hand with the Alzheimer’s Association Science Hub app. Learn more at alz.org/sciencehub.