The MURDOCK Study and Duke University’s Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center collaborate to advance the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders.
The most recent statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association reveal that 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number is estimated to reach 16 million. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the country and the fifth among people over the age of 65. With no cure and limited treatment options, the disease is one of the most feared among older Americans.
According to Dr. Kathleen Welsh-Bohmer, director of Duke University’s Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (Bryan ADRC), there is good news.
“Tremendous progress has been made in terms of understanding the illness,” she said, “and a lot of progress has occurred in the development of biomarkers, which will allow us to identify the illness earlier before the symptoms are fully evident. We are also beginning to understand better the underlying causes of the disease, its pathophysiology, which allows us a greater capability to develop targeted treatments which hone in on the fundamental biology of the disease instead of treating the symptoms.”
Welsh-Bohmer, who is a clinical neuropsychologist and also a professor of psychiatry at Duke Medical Center, has been with the Bryan Center since 1987. The Bryan ADRC, founded in 1985, is one of 27 Alzheimer’s disease research centers in the United States funded by the National Institute of Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health. The mission of the Bryan ADRC is to advance both research and care for patients affected by memory disorders, which includes Alzheimer’s disease.
“One of our goals in developing better treatments has been to improve early disease detection so that we can distinguish Alzheimer’s early on from similar effects of normal brain aging,” Welsh-Bohmer said. “The rationale is that knowing the early signature, permits early intervention before substantial damage has occurred. Over the last five years, there has been great success in identifying early clinical signatures of the disease that are reliable and strongly predictive of a progressive process like Alzheimer’s disease.”
In addition, Welsh-Bohmer explained, there is more evidence that the course of the disease is likely modifiable. Risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease include conditions that are also risk factors for cardiovascular disease, namely hypertension and diabetes. “We believe that these medical risk conditions are independent risk factors for the development of cognitive disorders and Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “We’re already beginning to treat those things with the notion that if we can alter cardiovascular risk, that is great. If we can also alter Alzheimer’s risk, all the better.”
Collaborating with the MURDOCK Study
Even more good news relating to the understanding and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is the Bryan ADRC’s collaboration with the MURDOCK Study (the Measurement to Understand the Reclassification of Disease of Cabarrus/Kannapolis) based at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. The MURDOCK Study is a Duke Translational Medicine Institute-sponsored, longitudinal study. Launched in 2007 with a $35 million donation by NCRC founder David H. Murdock, the study uses scientific technology and expertise from Duke researchers to analyze biological samples and data gathered from a community registry of Kannapolis and Cabarrus County citizens. The goal of this large undertaking is to identify molecular signatures of some of the most common diseases and disorders such as liver disease, arthritis, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
Welsh-Bohmer and colleague Dr. Allen Roses, a Jefferson-Pilot professor of neurobiology and neurology at the Duke University School of Medicine and the director of the Duke University Deane Drug Discovery Institute, are collaborating together on the Memory Health Screening that is being conducted in Kannapolis through the MURDOCK Study and in Durham through the Bryan ADRC. Led by Dr. Welsh-Bohmer, the purpose of this effort is to advance the understanding of linkages between Alzheimer’s disease, genetics and exposure to environmental factors.
“Many times when we do studies, we’re working with volunteer populations, convenience samples or people we already have in our clinics. Those groups are very helpful for getting ideas for how things are related to one another, but they are not representative of the population or the community as a whole,” Welsh-Bohmer said. “The collaboration with the MURDOCK Study developed because there is already a geographic study population assembled in Kannapolis. With a population that is representative of the local area, the MURDOCK population cohort provides a unique opportunity to explore the early stages and the early appearance of symptoms.”
Through the Memory Health Screening project, Welsh-Bohmer will conduct a gene, environmental correlation analysis to allow her to examine cognitive performance in order to better understand the factors that “accelerate or postpone the cognitive changes that people experience in their older years.” The project will also gather data for research into biomarkers, proteins in the blood that may indicate Alzheimer’s disease and lay the foundation for a long-term prevention study that could lead to clinical trials for a new Alzheimer’s treatment.
“I think the good news is that we’re trying to take the approach that changing late-life cognitive outcomes is possible even if we’ve inherited genes that put us at increased risk for developing very troubling disorders like Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. “If we can identify medical conditions that shift risk, then we are closer to identifying treatments that can shift onset of the disease from our 60s and 70s to perhaps our 80s and 90s. We have essentially prevented the disease by postponing symptom onset.”
For more information on the MURDOCK Study and enrolling, visit www.murdock-study.org. For more information about Duke University’s Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, visit https://adrc.mc.duke.edu.