More than 5 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer's disease, and a large population of aging baby boomers could potentially triple that number in the coming decades.
As this public health crisis escalates, researchers are working fervently to better understand the disease and who is most at risk for developing it, as well as to find ways to detect it earlier and to slow or halt its progress. Increasingly important in all of these efforts are brain imaging and fluid biomarkers.
"State-of-the art brain imaging with positron emission topography and magnetic resonance imaging, as well as measures of cerebral spinal fluid and blood markers, can help us with early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease, as well as help identify individuals who are likely to develop or are at increased risk for the disease before the development of clinical symptoms," said Gene Alexander, a professor in the University of Arizona Department of Psychology and Department of Psychiatry and director of the UA Brain Imaging, Behavior and Aging Laboratory.
Imaging and fluid biomarkers will be the focus of Alexander's efforts as director of a new Brain Imaging and Fluid Biomarkers Core of the Arizona Alzheimer's Disease Center. The center is a statewide, multi-institutional consortium of research partners that includes, among others, the UA, Arizona State University, the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, the Banner Sun Health Research Institute and the Phoenix-based Banner Alzheimer's Institute, Barrow Neurological Institute and Translational Genomics Research Institute. The director of the overall center is Dr. Eric Reiman of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute, who is also a co-investigator on the new core.
The center, which is funded by the National Institute on Aging, was recently awarded a $3.7 million grant from the NIA for the new core, which includes $1.1 million for core efforts at the UA.
In Alexander's role as core director, he will work to ensure researchers across the center have access to high-quality PET and MRI imaging, as well as fluid biomarker acquisition. He'll also lead the creation of a critical data set of brain images and fluid biomarker measures collected from study participants across the center, including those who are cognitively healthy, mildly impaired and diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Researchers across the center's participating sites will be able to access that information to help them with their work, giving them the opportunity to facilitate new collaborative Alzheimer’s research across Arizona and nationally.
"As a center, we've been engaged in neuroimaging work for many years, but having a core now consolidates those efforts and establishes capabilities across the center, regionally, in a new way," Alexander said. "The idea is that by having these capabilities, it's going to lead to many more opportunities for a wide variety of researchers to access these kinds of techniques in the context of aging and Alzheimer's research.
"One of the challenges that the field currently faces is that imaging and fluid biomarker techniques haven't been standardized very well," Alexander added. "We're really working to help come up with universal standards for these markers, so they can be even more useful in identifying people at risk and in evaluating responses to treatment or prevention therapies."
"As medical science accelerates with the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we have an incredible opportunity to find new ways of diagnosing and treating conditions that were out of reach just a short time ago," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "This center is going to not only advance the UA's already outstanding expertise in Alzheimer's research, but it will be an invaluable resource to the larger research community as we continue to unravel this disease and find ways to ensure that we can live long lives, with healthy bodies as well as healthy brains."
Alexander's UA co-investigators on the new Brain Imaging and Fluid Biomarkers Core include Dr. Phillip Kuo, professor of medical imaging; Ted Trouard, professor of biomedical engineering and medical imaging; Dr. Geoffrey Ahern, professor of neurology and holder of the Bruce and Lorraine Cumming Endowed Chair in Alzheimer’s Research; and Lee Ryan, professor and department head of psychology. Other co-investigators on the core include Dr. Tom Beach of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute, Yi Su of the Banner Alzheimer's Institute, Leslie Baxter of the Barrow Neurological Institute and Dr. Kaj Blennow of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Ahearn, Alexander, Ryan and Trouard also are affiliated with the UA Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, one of four McKnight institutes in the United States.
The Arizona Alzheimer's Disease Center is one of 32 such centers funded by the NIA nationwide.
"Having the state-of-the art tools and expertise of a center like we have here in Arizona is really special because it brings together collaborative, interdisciplinary researchers across the state to help address the critical challenge of Alzheimer's disease, and this Brain Imaging and Fluid Biomarkers Core really adds to that in a significant way," Alexander said.