Alberto VazquezAlberto Vazquez, Ph.D.
Research Assistant Professor, Department of Radiology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recipient of a 2014 Mentored New Investigator Research Grant to Increase Diversity.

Dr. Alberto Vazquez is using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study how and why nerve cell activity may decline in early Alzheimer’s disease.

Research focus

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive disorder, and future treatments for the disease will work best if they are administered before extensive and irreversible brain damage has occurred. As such, many scientists are looking for new and more effective ways of diagnosing Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages. Their research often involves novel imaging techniques that can visualize tiny, molecular-level brain changes linked to early dementia. In recent years, an imaging procedure called functional connectivity magnetic resonance imaging (fcMRI) has been developed to identify Alzheimer’s-related changes in “brain connectivity” — or the patterns of signaling and other forms of communication that occur among nerve cells across certain brain regions. This imaging procedure, and the role of connectivity in dementia, have become an important focus of the work of Dr. Alberto Vazquez and his team.

Can changes in brain cell activity indicate the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease?

In 2014, Dr. Vazquez received a Mentored New Investigator Research Grant to Increase Diversity from the Alzheimer’s Association. With this funding, he and his colleagues conducted fcMRI studies in mice that were engineered to develop an Alzheimer’s-like condition. First, they tested how accurately the fcMRI scans could reveal declines in animals’ brain connectivity. Second, they learned how these declines might be associated with other brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s, including declines in brain metabolism and the formation of toxic protein clumps called beta-amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Performing such assessments required the use of a complex array of analytical techniques for deciphering and interpreting the fcMRI data.

According to Dr. Vazquez, his work may shed new light on how specific brain cell activity changes may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It could also “help develop new ways to detect early AD or, at least, early neurodegeneration or brain dysfunction.”

A commitment to imaging studies

Dr. Vazquez relishes the opportunity to uncover the secrets of Alzheimer’s disease. “It is highly motivating to work on understanding and diagnosing a disease that has a deep impact on our community and humanity,” he says. Dr. Vazquez believes that his own professional focus, radiological imaging, will continue to reveal the disorder’s important biomarkers (biological factors that indicate the presence of or risk of developing a condition). He also appreciates the commitment of his own institution in promoting such work. As he says, “the energy in my department and university to continue working on broad aspects of AD is … inspiring.”

Impact of Association funding
Dr. Vazquez credits the Alzheimer's Association’s mentored grant program as a key influence in furthering his young career. Such influence extends beyond the grant money he received. As he states, the “process of applying for mentored career development grants provides a professional opportunity for junior scientists to approach established investigators and critically discuss ideas.” For him, this process helped strengthen relationships with two senior members of his university and leaders in the emergence of betaamyloid PET imaging: Chester Mathis, Ph.D., Professor of Radiology, and William E. Klunk, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry. Interacting with Drs. Mathis and Klunk helped give his work greater visibility at the University of Pittsburgh, and it has led to his participation in other research projects. One such project earned him a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 2016. It focused on developing a novel imaging technique to visualize beta-amyloid accumulation in the brain’s blood vessels — a dementia-related condition known as cerebral amyloid angiopathy. Dr. Vazquez also underscores his participation at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® (AAIC®) and at Association-sponsored events at other professional meetings as “fantastic and unique networking opportunities” that supported and enhanced his overall career development. All in all, support from the Association has helped Dr. Vazquez become a prominent investigator, both at the University of Pittsburgh and in the wider Alzheimer’s disease research community.

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