Mason Experts Attack Alzheimer’s on All Fronts

Posted: November 30, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: January 19, 2010 at 11:12 am

By Marjorie Musick

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and this number is expected to reach 13.4 million by 2050.

Although these numbers are alarming, researchers around the world are working diligently to find new treatments and improve methods of care to offer hope to patients and their families.

At George Mason University, experts in many different fields have been focusing their investigations on various aspects of the disease, from caring for patients who have Alzheimer’s and financing that care, to finding new ways to delay, prevent and treat this devastating health threat.

Andrew Carle: Assisted Living for Alzheimer’s Patients

Assistant professor and director of the Program in Assisted Living/Senior Housing Administration
Andrew Carle

Andrew Carle

Carle is an internationally recognized expert on senior housing and care. He has written extensively about, and spoken nationally and internationally on, the best models of Alzheimer’s care.

Carle conducts research related to the quality of housing options for seniors. He designed the Alzheimer’s facilities for a national “top 10” assisted living provider.

According to Carle, more than one-third of the nation’s 40,000 assisted living and continuing care retirement communities offer some type of Alzheimer’s care. However, families considering such housing need to know what to look for in terms of staffing, programming and facility design.

“Nearly 10 million U.S. caregivers struggle with issues of assisting someone with Alzheimer’s disease — often out of fear of moving the loved one to a long-term care facility,” Carle says.

“Assisted living has developed some truly innovative facilities for people with Alzheimer’s, but families are exhausting themselves because they think their only choices are between a nursing home or providing the care themselves,” says Carle.

“Up to 40 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers report providing more than 40 hours of help a week, with nearly 60 percent feeling they were ‘on duty’ 24 hours a day during the last year of the afflicted family member’s life. And to make things even more challenging, up to 1.4 million people live more than one hour away from the person they are helping.”

Robin Couch: Investigations for New Drugs

Assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
Robin Couch

Robin Couch

Couch is researching new therapeutics for treating Alzheimer’s disease and is currently evaluating the effectiveness of neuroprotection. His work involves the use of neurotrophins, molecules that defend brain cells against death. This includes nerve growth factor, a specific neurotrophin that binds to brain cells and promotes their survival.

“Recent studies have revealed a significant reduction of brain cell death and a reduced rate of cognitive decline with nerve growth factor therapy,” says Couch.

“While these results are exciting and illustrate the potential of nerve growth factor for Alzheimer’s disease therapy, the most critical drawback is the inability of neurotrophins to travel from the bloodstream into the brain. This means that invasive methods, such as direct injection or surgical implantation, are required to introduce nerve growth factors into the brain.

“To circumvent this problem, scientists are developing drugs that are able to enter into the brain and stimulate the resident cells to increase their natural secretion of nerve growth factor. Our research is helping to facilitate the development of such drugs,” says Couch.

Jane Flinn: Metals and Memory

Director, undergraduate program in neuroscience

Flinn, who has long focused on the biological bases of learning and memory, is examining the role of metals, particularly zinc, iron and copper, in the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients. She is also studying the effects of metal levels in drinking water on behavior and on plaque development.

She recently completed a study — conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey — that looked at the effects of enhanced zinc on spatial memory and plaque formation in transgenic (or genetically modified) mice.

“We found that iron significantly impairs spatial memory in transgenic mice with early onset Alzheimer’s disease,” Flinn says.

“Zinc caused spatial memory impairments that were partially alleviated by treating the mice with small amounts of copper,” she explains. “This is important because zinc, with copper, is recommended as a treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD). As a result, we have begun to examine metal levels in the eyes of people who have AMD,” says Flinn.

Pamela M. Greenwood: Telltale Genes

Associate professor of psychology
Pamela M. Greenwood

Pamela M. Greenwood

Greenwood uses behavioral, genetic and computational methods to investigate the cognitive sciences. Her overall goal is to find ways to identify older individuals who are likely to remain healthy and those who are likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Her research focuses on genes that regulate both normal cognitive aging and abnormal cognitive aging. She looks for effects of gene-to-gene interactions on cognitive aging, notably genes associated with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, including the Apolipoprotein E gene and neurotransmission genes.

“Alzheimer’s disease is the scourge of old age. However, we have reached a real turning point in Alzheimer’s research. For the first time in the history of the disease, there are drugs undergoing clinical trials that are aimed at possible mechanisms of the disease,” Greenwood says.

“The path forward is not yet clear, but we can now start to eliminate hypotheses,” she says. “Pathological changes can be detected years before the neuron death, which occurs about the time of diagnosis. This provides a window of time during which the disease may be slowed or delayed, and investigations into ways to do this could yield real benefits in the near future.”

Dmitri Klimov: Molecular Computer Simulations

Associate professor, Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
Dmitri Klimov

Dmitri Klimov

Klimov uses computer simulations to study Alzheimer’s disease. His research focuses on the formation of starch-like protein assemblies called amyloid fibrils, which accumulate in body tissues. His research also examines the role amyloid fibers play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Klimov is interested in the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

He has published more than 57 papers and recently received a half-million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health in support of his research.

“The design of drugs against Alzheimer’s disease requires an understanding of the formation of amyloid fibrils on the microscopic level. The molecular computer simulations performed in our lab have given us a much better understanding of this disease. Studying the interactions of ibuprofen with Alzheimer amyloid fibrils should help us to determine how this drug dissolves them and to develop strategies to enhance ibuprofen’s therapeutic benefit,” says Klimov.

“I believe that molecular computer simulations are uniquely positioned to map the development of Alzheimer’s disease on a microscopic level.”

Mark Meiners: Care Coordination to Control Costs

Professor of Health Administration and Policy
Mark Meiners

Mark Meiners

Meiners is nationally recognized as one of the leading experts on financing and program development in long-term care. Among his most recent and noteworthy accomplishments is his leadership of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Medicare/Medicaid Integration Program, an initiative designed to help states develop new systems of care that better coordinate acute and long-term care.

In addition, he has led the RWJF Partnership for Long-Term Care since its beginning in 1987. His ground-breaking research on long-term care insurance has significantly increased public interest in this topic, and his work on Medicare/Medicaid integration has helped advance chronic care improvement strategies for all aged and disabled populations.

“The direct and indirect costs of Alzheimer’s and other dementias to Medicare, Medicaid and businesses amount to more than $148 billion every year. It is time to get a handle on these costs. Finding a cure is the goal, but until then, improved care coordination for Alzheimer’s patients and their families can go a long way toward bending the cost curve,” says Meiners.

“Alzheimer’s patients and their families need medical and social service providers to work together in helping them cope with the stress of dealing with our fragmented health care system. Congress is beginning to support care coordination as an important part of health care reform, but care coordination needs to focus on the individual and engage interdisciplinary teams that include both health and social service professionals.”

Raja Parasuraman: Early Detection

University Professor; director, PhD Program in Human Factors and Applied Cognition; chair, Neuroimaging Core of the Krasnow Institute
Raja Parasuraman

Raja Parasuraman

Raja Parasuraman is a world-renowned researcher of cognitive neuroscience and human performance in human-machine systems. Parasuraman is known for developing the field of neuroergonomics, which he defines as the study of brain and behavior at work. He has conducted many studies using information-processing paradigms, event-related brain potentials and functional brain imaging both in normal populations and in relation to aging and Alzheimer’s disease. He has investigated the roles of human attention, memory and vigilance in automated and robotic systems as well as the molecular genetics of cognition, specifically attention and working memory.

Parasuraman has written several books related to his neuroscience research including “The Psychology of Vigilance,” “Varieties of Attention,” ”Event-Related Brain Potentials,” “Automation and Human Performance,” “The Attentive Brain” and “Neuroergonomics: The Brain at Work.”

“The number of cases of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is reaching epidemic proportions. Research focused on early detection, in adults in their 50s and early 60s, can help reduce the devastating health, economic and social impact of this disease,” says Parasuraman.

“There is hope arising from the convergence of scientific fields — neuroscience, genetics and psychology — that an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to early detection will help in reducing the number of Alzheimer’s cases. Early detection of those at greatest risk can help in identifying who may best benefit from treatments that delay the onset of the disease. Even a one- to two-year delay in the age of onset can lead to a substantial decline in the number of cases.”

Write to mediarel at