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USC researchers share discoveries on Alzheimer’s disease and discuss strategies to fight the illness

A newly approved yet controversial drug, in particular, brings both hope and challenges for patients and clinicians.

illustration of brain with pills and vaccine and magnifying glass showing a view of brain
Researchers are attempting to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease using medication that addresses amyloid plaques. (Illustration/iStock)

A controversial new drug for Alzheimer’s disease is raising tough questions: Who should take it? Who will pay for it? And how will we know how well it works? But that’s not the only Alzheimer’s news during Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.

Recent USC research shows that members of an isolated indigenous group in the Bolivian Amazon have healthier brains that age more slowly — possibly because of healthy diet and exercise. And another study finds that texted messages, tailored to African Americans, can increase knowledge about Alzheimer’s in the Black community.

More than 5 million Americans are living with the memory-erasing disease, and USC remains one of the top private institutions in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research. Here’s a look at some of the latest topics that USC researchers are studying.

USC implementing the rollout of new Alzheimer’s drug

Keck Medicine of USC is currently developing a screening criterion for patients best suited to try aducanumab, the new Alzheimer’s drug that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In clinical trials, the medication — which must be infused — was found to clear amyloid plaques in the brain.

“The drug was tested on patients with mild cognitive impairment. Therefore, while the Food and Drug Administration has issued a broad authorization of aducanumab, we will work to designate a select patient population that may benefit from the therapy,” said Krist Azizian, chief pharmacy officer at Keck Medicine of USC. “We will also create guidelines for monitoring and assessing patients during and post-treatment that includes brain imaging. Access to the medication will not be an issue for patients, as our health system has multiple infusion centers available to administer the drug.”

“We will also keep in mind,” he added, “the fact that the FDA can ultimately remove aducanumab from the market pending additional data and verification of clinical benefit as part of the accelerated approval process.”

Bringing the Black community trusted, timely information on Alzheimer’s

“African Americans still have the lowest level of basic knowledge about Alzheimer’s, have few trusted sources of information for it and have the highest risk of the disease in the United States,” said Karen Lincoln, an associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

“Increasing Alzheimer’s literacy among African Americans is crucial for increasing their awareness of their personal risk for the disease, improving care, reducing disparities and ultimately enhancing the quality of life of people diagnosed and their caregivers.”

Increasing Alzheimer’s literacy among African Americans is crucial.

Karen Lincoln

Lincoln, who founded Advocates for African American Elders, draws insight from personal experience — her own mother’s diagnosis with dementia. Despite her professional expertise, it took Lincoln several years to convince her family that something was wrong.

Today, Lincoln focuses on tailored text messaging to educate the Black community about the disease. While the Alzheimer’s Association might text reminders to engage in brain games such as Scrabble or Sudoku, Lincoln urges her community to play dominoes or try driving a different route to church.

Amazon indigenous group’s lifestyle may hold a key to slowing aging

USC researchers also look for clues to preventing Alzheimer’s through studies and fieldwork around the globe. A recent study of a physically active Amazonian population in Bolivia has revealed possible hints for staving off the disease.

“The Tsimane people have provided us with an amazing natural experiment on the potentially detrimental effects of modern lifestyles on our health,” said Andrei Irimia, an assistant professor of gerontology, neuroscience and biomedical engineering at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

In his study of the Tsimane (pronounced chee-MAH’-nay), Irimia has found that despite high levels of inflammation, these individuals are unique for their healthy brains that age more slowly.

Although people in industrialized nations have access to modern medical care, they are more sedentary and eat a diet high in saturated fats. In contrast, the Tsimane have little or no access to health care but are extremely physically active and consume a high-fiber diet that includes vegetables, fish and lean meat.

“These findings suggest that brain atrophy may be slowed substantially by the same lifestyle factors associated with very low risk of heart disease,” Irimia said.

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USC researchers share discoveries on Alzheimer’s disease and discuss strategies to fight the illness

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