Paul M. Thompson, PhD, professor of ophthalmology, neurology, psychiatry and the behavioral sciences, radiology and engineering at the Keck School of Medicine, has received a Zenith Fellows research grant from the Alzheimer’s Association, one of the most prestigious awards in Alzheimer’s and dementia research. The grant program provides up to $450,000 to senior investigators studying novel ways to prevent, diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease.

“These awards accelerate progress toward treating and preventing Alzheimer’s. We are pushing the research field to explore new ideas,” said Heather M. Synder, the Alzheimer’s Association vice president of medical and scientific relations. “The Zenith awards fund cutting-edge research that advances our understanding of the fundamental problems related to the causes and progression of Alzheimer’s and all dementia.”

The grant will fund a global study of APOE-e2, the genotype carried by about 10% of the population that protects against Alzheimer’s, in an effort to better understand the biological mechanisms at play. Throughout the study, Thompson and his team will measure changes in brain volume and functional activity over time and compare any observed shifts with the genetic profiles of participants. The large-scale study of more than 30,000 individuals around the world provides a powerful opportunity to detect subtle patterns and links between genotype, sex and the biological factors that may lessen the chance of developing Alzheimer’s.

“This genetic variant is remarkable as it is associated with a decreased risk of developing AD, but we know little about why,” said Thompson, who serves as associate director of the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (INI). “We will bring together diverse datasets and a worldwide network of scientists to study how the brains of people with this protective gene differ,” including how they lose brain tissue and how amyloid plaques — a hallmark of AD — may build up differently in their brains.

The new project, known as ENIGMA-APOE2, builds on Thompson’s Enhancing Neuro Imaging Genetics through Meta-Analysis (ENIGMA) consortium, a global network of researchers that pool genetic, brain imaging and other data to conduct some of the world’s largest studies of neurological disorders, aging and other topics.

“The Zenith Society’s generous support will enable us to direct the power and creativity of the ENIGMA network towards understanding the factors that affect the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Thompson said. “It’s a great honor to be supported by such a remarkable group.”

Thompson and his team hope the study will help researchers better understand what factors protect against the disease and how to treat it in the future. To learn more about Thompson’s new study, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.

— Zara Greenbaum