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Michigan’s collaborative Alzheimer’s and dementia research community shows innovation, leadership as epidemic grows

Michigan’s collaborative Alzheimer’s and dementia research community shows innovation, leadership as epidemic grows
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July 21, 2020
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Bruno Giordani, Ph.D., has long-known the strength of Michigan-based Alzheimer’s and dementia research. 

“We have some of the most knowledgeable, capable and creative minds here in Michigan,” he said. “They are committed to dementia science and the idea of a world without Alzheimer’s and all other dementia. I’m proud to be a part of that,” said Giordani, who is associate director of the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center, University of Michigan psychiatry department chief of psychology and a tenured professor in psychiatry, neurology, psychology and the School of Nursing.

Researchers-(1).pngThe Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center was established in 1984 in the department of neurology at Michigan Medicine and came to include the newly refunded Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (MADRC) in 2016 under the direction of Hank Paulson, M.D, with the goal of better understanding both Alzheimer’s disease and the less common forms of the illness. It is funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. 

As one of the 32 NIA Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers (ADRC) around the country, it is one of the nation’s leading Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders research centers and is a foremost leader in the area of underrepresented populations. Additionally, the Michigan ADRC is unique as a tri-university research center made up of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University -- the institutions that form Michigan’s University Research Corridor, one of the nation’s premier university innovation clusters. 

“The MADRC is made up of a strong team of researchers from across the three universities,” Giordani said. “It includes research cores with specialists in clinical evaluation and clinical trials; research on the latest imaging and biomarker discoveries; outreach, study recruitment and education teams; and investigators in neurochemistry and neuropathology.”

As Michigan’s Alzheimer’s population continues to grow, the work of the overall MADRC is increasingly important, as is the work of researchers and institutions across the state. Today, 190,000 Michiganders age 65 and older live with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2025, that number is expected to climb to 220,000.

The Alzheimer’s Association works closely with the MADRC and its researchers, as well as with other groundbreaking innovators such as Peter A. Lichtenberg, Ph.D., at Wayne State University’s Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and the Institute of Gerontology, and Irving Vega, Ph.D., associate professor of translational neuroscience at Michigan State University, both leaders within the MADRC, as well.

At Wayne State, Lichtenberg said the university has a strong track record in community-engaged research.

“We focus on a lot of translational research so that what we learn can be employed in our communities and especially in Detroit,” said Lichtenberg, who was just elected president of the Gerontological Society of America. "The leadership of MDC has done an amazing job of bringing dementia leaders together from the non-profit, clinical, advocacy and research sectors to help Michigan aid all who have dementias and all who are care partners."

Vega’s research is directed toward the understanding of how neurons respond to the presence of pathological tau in different brain regions that are susceptible or resistant to tau-mediated neurodegeneration. His work also focuses on the identification of biomarkers with the potential to be used for the diagnosis of AD. He also leads work on a Michigan Center for Contextual Factors in Alzheimer’s Disease (MCCFAD) grant focused on engaging underrepresented populations such as the Latino and Arab American communities in research.

Latinos are about 1.5 times as likely to have Alzheimer's or other dementias as older whites, and older African-Americans are about 2 times as likely to have Alzheimer's or other dementias as older whites. Vega’s community outreach efforts are directed to empower individuals with scientific-based facts that can be used to reduce their risk of developing AD. He uses a community partnership approach to identify and assess institutional and community barriers that contribute to health disparities, promoting an inclusive environment based on cooperation to advance mutual interests.  

According to Jennifer Lepard, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter, there’s often a shared mission among those in the Alzheimer’s and dementia community in Michigan, and collaboration helps leverage insights, foster innovation, increase participation in clinical trials and observational studies, and better communicate with Michigan residents about available programs and resources. 

“The only way forward in finding a prevention, treatment or cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementia is through research and collaboration. Collaboration between organizations such as ours and our research institutions is crucial.” Lepard said. “The Alzheimer’s Association currently funds 590 projects in 31 countries, which includes awards for promising research right here in Michigan.”

According to Lepard, current Alzheimer’s Association grant recipients at Michigan institutions are investigating Tau protein and misregulation of fast axonal transport directionality; RNA toxicity in frontotemporal dementia; hospital readmission rates in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia; biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease; and more. 

Additionally, a host of other Michigan researchers are currently investigating Alzheimer’s and dementia as related to hypertension, diabetes, biomarkers, lifestyle and genetic risk, stress, underrepresented and understudied populations, diagnosis disparities by race and ethnicity, caregiving needs, styles and techniques, genes and more. 

In fact, nearly 30 researchers from U-M, MSU, Wayne State and Eastern Michigan University are slated to present their research at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® (AAIC® 2020), July 27-31. The conference, which is virtual this year due to COVID, is the largest Alzheimer’s and dementia conference in the world -- this year breaking records with 17,000 registered attendees.   

“New research presented at the virtual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference will help change the trajectory of dementia,” Lepard said. “In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the importance of protecting our nation’s most vulnerable and how essential medical research is to the nation’s health and economic security.”

As the Alzheimer’s epidemic continues to grow, Congress has made funding Alzheimer’s and dementia research more of a priority in recent years. 

Giordani says that, “Since Congress has increased the budgets for the NIA I have seen the growth of an important NIA effort in funding young researchers. The MADRC has been a critical resource in the funding of studies from a number of our younger researchers across the state. In addition, this funding increase has led the development of research and education programs in each ADRC, with the goal of influencing the education of younger faculty and enhancing their opportunities in research in AD and related dementias. Our MADRC has such younger faculty mentees across our research cores, many from underrepresented groups. The funding increase has also allowed for a new and exciting funding line by NIA for researchers who had not been pursuing work in AD and related dementias to demonstrate the opportunity of linkages in this area. Our center has been affiliated with five of these projects, representing new work from faculty in hearing, heart disease, psychiatry and gut bacteria. These funding increases bring us closer and closer to an end of Alzheimer’s disease, as we attack it from all angles.”

The Alzheimer's Association, which is the world's largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer's disease research, has lobbied extensively for increased federal funding for Alzheimer’s and related dementia research at the NIH. Since 2011, annual federal Alzheimer’s research funding has increased from $448 million to $2.8 billion nationwide.

Michigan is getting a good share of the funding. According to the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research, an organization that each year publishes a ranking of NIH grant awards, last year Michigan ranked number 11 in the nation for NIH awards.

In addition, between 1994 and 2020, the Alzheimer’s Association has funded about $7.5 million in Michigan research projects.

Alzheimer's Association

The Alzheimer's Association leads the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer's and all other dementia.™ For more information, visit or call the 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.

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