By Christine Chan and Amy E. Hamaker
Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and more than five million Americans live with the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Conquering Alzheimer’s was the focus of the first Zilkha Mini Symposium on Alzheimer’s Research at USC.
The symposium, held on Aug. 26 in honor of a visit by the Alzheimer’s Association’s Maria Carrillo, PhD, and Susan Galeas, MSW, MPH, covered a variety of topics, including brain imaging and mapping, genomics, the blood-brain barrier, new therapeutics for Alzheimer’s disease and an overview of clinical research at USC.
Berislav Zlokovic, MD, PhD, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, part of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, and Helena Chui, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology at the Keck School, co-hosted the two portions of the event. ZNI patron Selim Zilkha was on hand to hear the speakers.
An interesting highlight was the fact that USC is poised to be at the center of discovering how vascular factors contribute to cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of current Alzheimer’s research is focused on amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles in the brain — masses inside and around nerve cell bodies that cause cell death and brain shrinkage.
An understudied area of opportunity for research is the vascular system. Many experts believe that controlling vascular risk factors may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protecting brain health.
To draw a parallel, cardiologists have come to realize that heart disease, except in rare cases, is not actually a disease of the heart muscle, but reflects problems with coronary circulation. The same principle can also be applied to the brain in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Arthur W. Toga, PhD, Provost Professor of Ophthalmology, Neurology, Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, Radiology and Engineering, and director of the USC Institute for Neuroimaging and Informatics, told the audience that a major goal for Alzheimer’s research is to link up research projects through data sharing. Toga’s Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative project currently combines information from 17,000 subjects and 3,160 primary investigators, and in 54 countries, with 58 sites across the United States.
Roberta Brinton, PhD, professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the USC School of Pharmacy, examined how female and male brains age differently, and how this affects Alzheimer’s rates.
According to Brinton, women are two times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease than men, and not simply because they live longer. Menopausal aging symptoms are also brain-related, she said, and the brain depends on receiving energy through the vascular system. Estrogen controls the energy glucose delivery system, which makes estrogen a possible therapeutic for Alzheimer’s, but with a downside of an increased risk of breast cancer.