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USC experts take long look at the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease

Researchers in different disciplines try to pinpoint its start, and consider treatments from there; November is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month

brain trachtography imaging
The shape and properties of the brain’s white matter structures have been shown to be related to behavior, cognition and neurological diseases. (Photo/Courtesy of the USC Laboratory of Neuro Imaging and Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Consortium of the Human Connectome Project)

Alzheimer’s, a disease that can bankrupt families financially and emotionally, is a wicked problem for which there is no cure even though it was discovered more than a century ago. Family caregivers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, spend an average of at least $5,000 a year to support a loved one with Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death in the United States.

As National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month gets underway Tuesday, USC’s robust community of internationally recognized faculty is working to demystify the degenerative disease and find ways to prevent, treat and cure it.

Paul Aisen (Photo/Courtesy of Paul Aisen)

Paul Aisen (Photo/Courtesy of Paul Aisen)

Ongoing trials show promise

“Thirty years ago, there were no treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. There was no acceptance of the idea that memory could be treated because memory seems a vague notion … We’ve come a long way since then. We have developed the tools to study drugs for Alzheimer’s and have developed effective therapies.

“But the sad truth is that one-third of people over 65 have evidence of brain pathology called amyloid that leads to Alzheimer’s disease. Today Alzheimer’s disease is not considered to be a disorder that begins with the onset of dementia. It’s a disease that begins 15 or 20 years earlier.”

Director of the USC Alzheimer’s Therapeutic Research Institute and a professor of neurology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC

Professor of Psychology Margaret Gatz

Margaret Gatz (Photo/Matt Meindl)

Identifying the risks

“We do not yet know how to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease. The two main risk factors are old age and genetics. Our group is studying twins to identify risk factors that, once modified, may slow or delay the degenerative disease.

“Because twins share the same genetic risk, we can more directly study contributing factors to Alzheimer’s based on variations within the pair. Using this design, we have identified midlife diabetes, overweight and stress as modifiable risk factors. Higher education and a more complex occupation protect against Alzheimer’s.”

Professor of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Professor Mara Mather

Mara Mather (Photo/John Skalicky)

Investigating ground zero

“The first place in the brain that Alzheimer’s pathology is seen is in a small brainstem nucleus called the ‘locus coeruleus.’ By age 30, nearly everyone has some initial signs of this pathology in the locus coeruleus. In our research, we are examining how the locus coeruleus contributes to emotion and cognition and how it is affected in aging and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

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USC experts take long look at the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease

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