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USC joins national group in search for signs of onset dementia

Consortium looks at biological factors that can predict health outcomes as part of a five-year study

Danny Wang presenting
Danny Wang presents findings at a consortium for cognitive Impairment and dementia. (Photo/Courtesy MarkVCID Coordinating Center)

Keck School of Medicine of USC researchers have joined a nationwide consortium that aims to identify and validate biological markers that predict the onset of dementia.

The five-year investigation, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute on Aging, was launched in 2016 with more than $6 million in year-one funding.

Seven separate projects at institutions that include USC and the University of California, San Francisco, have spent the first two years analyzing and optimizing vascular cognitive impairment and dementia biomarkers, which are measureable biological factors that reliably predict health outcomes.

Researchers across the consortium — known as Biomarkers for Vascular Contributions to Cognitive Impairment and Dementia, or MarkVCID — are studying a range of datatypes, including brain scans, genetic profiles, clinical and neuropsychological evaluations and fluid samples such as blood and cerebrospinal fluid.

Later this year, researchers will enter the project’s second phase, during which promising biomarkers will be validated by other consortium members and prepared for use in clinical trials. Ultimately, the discoveries made by the consortium could spur the development of effective drugs and interventions to treat Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

We all know that dementia is a tsunami waiting to happen – it’s going to be a true public health emergency.

Steven Greenberg

“We all know that dementia is a tsunami waiting to happen — it’s going to be a true public health emergency,” said Steven Greenberg, principal investigator for the MarkVCID coordinating center at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But we need to understand what role damage to small blood vessels plays in the bigger picture. We’re committed to finding biomarkers that don’t just look promising, but are really ready for prime time, ready to be immediately plugged into clinical trials.”

Innovative imaging

The USC-based project, led by Danny Wang, professor of neurology and radiology at the Keck School of Medicine, relies on two innovative imaging methods to examine small blood vessels in the brain. Wang’s group is using MRI to measure the vascular compliance, or stiffness, of blood vessels, which is an indicator of hypertension and other vascular diseases. The team at the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute also is examining the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, which increases with age and is believed to be closely linked to dementia.

John Ringman, professor of clinical neurology, and Amir Kashani, assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology, are co-principal investigators on the USC project. While Ringman oversees the genetic and clinical analyses, Kashani is using another type of imaging — Optical Coherence Tomography Angiography (OCTA) — to look directly at capillaries and small arteries in the brain via the retina. OCTA enables researchers to obtain high-resolution images on the order of 10 microns, about one-tenth the diameter of a strand of hair.

“Typically, it’s difficult to look directly at small vessels in the brain, but OCTA is a relatively cheap and accessible way to see arterials and capillaries in great detail,” Wang said. “As a result, there has been growing interest in using this technology to find early markers of dementia.”

The USC researchers are drawing from a pool of 6,200 subjects, all of whom are Latino, a population traditionally underrepresented in aging research.

As the group enters the second phase of its investigation, “we have a very clear goal,” Greenberg said. “By the end of year five, we hope to have a suite of biomarkers ready for clinical trials so that the various candidate treatments for vascular cognitive impairment can be tested and hopefully shown to be effective.”

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USC joins national group in search for signs of onset dementia

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