Family Connection Motivates Alzheimer’s Research

June 27, 2018 6:00 AM

A Michigan Medicine scientist explains her drive to find treatments for Alzheimer’s, plus what others should know about the disease.

Lisa McGinley, Ph.D., left, and Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., at work in the lab.

It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and some 5.7 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease. The most common form of dementia touches people in all walks of life, including the mother of a Michigan Medicine neurologist who is researching the disease.

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“When you see firsthand how tragic it is to lose one’s memories and sense of self, what more incentive do you need?” says Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., who is the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology and director of the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery. Along with Alzheimer’s research, she also is heavily involved in work on diabetic neuropathy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

This Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, Feldman discusses her personal connection to the disease, how to identify symptoms in patients and where research is taking place to improve future treatments.

What motivated you to investigate Alzheimer’s disease?

Feldman: For me, personal experience with Alzheimer’s has played a big part in my research focus and continues to motivate me today. My mother developed cognitive decline at the age of 85 and progressed to Alzheimer’s by the age of 88. Two months after her 88th birthday in 2017, I placed her in a local memory care unit. Visiting her there, and getting to know all the other memory care patients and their families, has been a life-changing experience — suffice it to say, this disease really leaves no family untouched.

Our research in the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery focuses on developing stem cell-based therapies for Alzheimer’s and on understanding disease mechanisms to identify novel therapeutic targets. I am hopeful that our group’s work, led by Lisa McGinley, Ph.D., as well as the enormous ongoing research effort of the Alzheimer’s scientific community, will soon lead to effective treatments, or even one day, a cure.

What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

Feldman: Known risk factors for Alzheimer’s include age, genetics, environment and lifestyle. Causes probably include a combination of these risk factors that then determine onset and progression, which usually differs from person to person. These days, there is a lot of focus on how other vascular and metabolic conditions are related to Alzheimer’s and how a healthy lifestyle (defined by both diet and exercise) can reduce the risk of developing dementia.

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In the Program for Neurology Research & Discovery, we’re particularly interested in understanding the link between diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s. Alarmingly, patients with diabetes have a 50 to 75 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. We are beginning to understand why there is this strong association — and it appears to be in part secondary to “bad” lipids, meaning fats in the bloodstream that affect brain metabolism and function.

What symptoms might precede an Alzheimer’s diagnosis?

Feldman: Mild memory lapses are the most common early-stage symptom. Often, the person has difficulty remembering familiar words or locations as well as newly learned information, like the name of a person they just met. They may struggle to complete normal daily tasks that involve planning and organization, such as paying a bill on time or driving to a familiar location. Family members may notice changes in mood or personality and a general increase in anxiety or confusion. The symptoms do vary from patient to patient.

Importantly, when one ages normally, it is common to have isolated episodes when one has difficulty remembering a particular name or place. However, when the pattern is continuous, this is commonly the first symptom of what is known as mild cognitive impairment.

How have you seen awareness of Alzheimer's increase?

Feldman: With the increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s, there has also been a big increase in awareness over the past few years. For the scientific community, this is particularly evident in terms of funding. This year we saw a historic increase of $414 million in research funding awarded to the National Institutes of Health, making a total of $1.8 billion in federal funds for Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

SEE ALSO: 5 Ways to Protect Your Memory from Dementia

And in our state in 2016, $9 million in federal funding began for the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Core Center that brings together University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University researchers, clinicians and trainees to enhance the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

What’s the next step in your research?

Feldman: We have found that transplanted stem cells greatly improve brain function in animals with Alzheimer’s disease. They appear to have improved memory and learning ability, which is a discovery that could have profound implications for millions of Alzheimer’s patients and their families. We are currently completing the additional required animal studies to help us understand how to safely and more effectively utilize stem cells in the brain; our goal is to use this information to develop a human clinical trial.

In parallel, using a new product developed by Bell Biosystems, we can visualize and track transplanted stem cells in live animals with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This allows us to assess movement patterns and survival times of transplanted cells in the brain. We hope to incorporate this technology into safety and tracking studies required by the Food and Drug Administration to begin human clinical trials.