WSU researchers to close gaps in Alzheimer’s disease research

3D model of a human brain.

Researchers at Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane will spend the next three years conducting research aimed at improving brain health in older adults, thanks to nearly $500,000 in grants funded by the Alzheimer’s Association.

The three grants awarded to WSU will support three research projects that will close gaps in Alzheimer’s disease research while addressing inequities in Alzheimer’s disease risk and treatment in U.S. Native populations.

Estimates say that as many as one in three Native American elders will develop Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and the number of American Indian/Alaska Native people aged 65 and older living with dementia is expected to quadruple by 2060. Meanwhile, lack of representation in research studies and barriers to Alzheimer’s and dementia care are hampering efforts to reduce or eliminate Alzheimer’s-related disparities in this population.

As part of her research on health disparities and race and ethnicity, Anna Zamora-Kapoor will conduct a study on the link between obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—a disorder that causes the airway to collapse during sleep and disrupts normal breathing—and cognitive performance in American Indians. An assistant professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and a researcher in the WSU Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), Zamora-Kapoor has received a $150,000 Alzheimer’s Association award for the project.

One in three men and one in six women over the age of 50 suffer from OSA, and recent research has suggested that OSA increases the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Obesity is the strongest risk factor for OSA, and while American Indians have the highest obesity rates in the country, they are underrepresented in OSA research studies,” Zamora-Kapoor said.

To address this gap, she will conduct an analysis of data from three previously conducted, federally funded studies on cerebrovascular disease in American Indians, sleep-disordered breathing, and health-related risk behaviors.

Another $174,034 in funding goes to IREACH scientist and College of Medicine postdoctoral research associate Lexie Jackson, whose project focuses on tailoring an online intervention to caregivers of Native Hawaiian adults living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. To that end, Jackson and her team will adapt the intervention—known as Tele-Savvy—to include Native Hawaiian cultural values. They will evaluate the effectiveness of the adapted intervention in a pilot test of 50 caregivers of Native Hawaiian adults living with Alzheimer’s or related dementias in the Pacific Northwest.

The final Alzheimer’s Association grant funds a study into how type 1 diabetes might heighten the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

“There is some evidence suggesting that older adults with type 1 diabetes have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias,” said Luciana Mascarenhas Fonseca, the study’s principal investigator and a postdoctoral research associate in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “However, we don’t yet know what factors or underlying neurobiology might contribute to that elevated risk, which is what this study seeks to identify.”

The $173,906 Alzheimer’s Association grant allows her to add cognition assessment, risk factor analysis, and blood sample collection to an ongoing study of middle-aged and older adults with type 1 diabetes led by College of Medicine associate professor Naomi Chaytor. Mascarenhas Fonseca will analyze the collected study data to examine the relationships between cognitive variability, Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers in blood plasma, and vascular risk factors related to type 1 diabetes.

“These projects will help advance research that will address the disproportionate burden of Alzheimer’s and dementia on diverse and underserved populations, promote the use of lifestyle interventions to aid prevention, and increase our understanding of risk factors and biomarkers,” said Joel Loiacono, the Alzheimer’s Association’s regional director for eastern Washington and north Idaho. “As a WSU alumnus, I am especially proud of the Alzheimer’s Association’s support of WSU as we work together to end Alzheimer’s and all dementia.”

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