On the Frontlines of the Alzheimer’s Fight

Alzheimer’s disease wreaks emotional havoc on patients, who are robbed of their memories, their dignity and their lives. At the University of Kentucky, our researchers are dedicated to changing this tragic course. Over the past three decades, the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging has flourished and has emerged as one of the nation's leading centers on aging and Alzheimer’s research. Through the years, we’ve been involved in some of the most important findings related to Alzheimer’s, including the discovery that the disease causes changes in the brain years before outward symptoms manifest.

Today, as one of only 31 NIH-designated Alzheimer’s Disease Centers in the United States, Sanders-Brown receives federal funding to conduct research into a disease that kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. In 2017, Sanders-Brown received more than $17 million in public grants. Our major areas of focus are basic and applied research in healthy brain aging, Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders.

Our center is a leader in the detection of early neuropathological changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s and other age-related dementias, made possible in part by a large cohort of more than 700 volunteers – both healthy and cognitively impaired – in the Sanders-Brown Longitudinal Study. The study generates significant amounts of data about how healthy brain aging occurs and when and why some people develop Alzheimer’s.

We’re much more than a research center, though. We connect families to resources. Several specialty clinics in the Kentucky Neuroscience Institute (KNI) at UK HealthCare offer a range of clinical services for patients and families concerned about memory changes or movement disorders. The KNI Memory Disorders Clinic offers initial evaluations for memory loss and care of patients with late-life cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Additionally, Sanders-Brown’s outreach programs – including a monthly Memory Café (in partnership with the Kentucky Alzheimer’s Association and Baptist Health) and a Rural Caregiver Telemedicine Program – connect patients and their families with resources they need to manage the day-to-day ups and downs of life with Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Linda Van Eldik, Director of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging said, “We are at a tipping point: we have the ideas, and we have the drive. We have been a world leader in some of science’s most important discoveries about Alzheimer’s, and we intend to have our fingerprints on the cure as well. We can always -- and will -- do more.”

Three-Pronged Approach by Sanders-Brown

Sanders-Brown is leading the way in Kentucky and nationally to improve the quality of life for older adults through Alzheimer’s research, education and outreach. We’re training a new generation of researchers, providing community support and unlocking answers that may one day help lead to an Alzheimer’s cure. Highlights from each area are detailed below.

Research: Findings link diet, cognitive health

Ai-Ling Lin, PhD, and her Sanders-Brown colleagues have published two studies that demonstrate the effect of diet on cognitive health in animals. The first, in Scientific Reports, demonstrated that neurovascular function improved in mice who followed a ketogenic diet, characterized by high levels of fat and low levels of carbohydrates. Results in mice on the ketogenic diet, compared with those on a regular diet, included significant increases in cerebral blood flow, improved balance in the microbiome in the gut, lower blood glucose levels and body weight, and a beneficial increase in the process that clears amyloid-beta from the brain — a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. The second study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, used neuroimaging techniques to explore the effects of rapamycin, the ketogenic diet or simple caloric restriction on the cognitive function of both young and aging mice. Lin’s work in animal models has tremendous implications for future studies in humans.

Education: Training future researchers

Sanders-Brown has been awarded a $2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to train the next generation of dementia researchers. “Training in Traditional Research in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (TRIAD)” is the first Sanders-Brown training grant dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. The grant covers mentoring of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral trainees at the University of Kentucky, providing cross-disciplinary, bench-to-bedside training. While trainees receive the opportunity to participate in research, they also receive valuable learning experiences in the ethics of both basic and clinical research.

Outreach: Raising awareness in vulnerable communities

Sanders-Brown is working in partnership with The Balm in Gilead – a national faith-based organization that addresses prevalent public health issues among African-Americans – to raise awareness about memory-related disorders in the African-American community. African-Americans are two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than Caucasians and are less likely to have an early diagnosis of their condition, which means less time for treatment and planning. As an aspect of the partnership, The Balm in Gilead Foundation tapped Sanders-Brown’s African-American Dementia Outreach Partnership to write a curriculum for Memory Sunday. The Memory Sunday campaign, held within congregations serving African-Americans on the second Sunday in June, provides education on various aspects of Alzheimer’s, including prevention, treatment, studies and caregiving.