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Gregory Brewer in his laboratory

January 25, 2010

SIU Med School Researchers Studying Alzheimer’s Disease

Research scientists at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield and Carbondale are working to increase understanding of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and explore possible new treatments.  As part of SIU’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders, SIU faculty have a variety of research projects underway that could lead to the development of new ways of diagnosing and treating this devastating disease, which currently has no cure or effective treatment.

The funding for these research projects totals $3.5 million and is from various public and private sources including the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re proud of the increasing amount of research at our Alzheimer’s Center, because it means we can build our current programs by developing new treatments for the future,” said Dr. Tom Ala, associate professor of neurology and interim director for SIU’s Center.

Alzheimer’s disease affects 5.3 million Americans and the number of people with the disease is expected to triple by 2050.  In Illinois 200,000 people are estimated to have AD.

Gregory J. Brewer, Ph.D., professor of medical microbiology, immunology and cell biology and Stark endowed chair of Alzheimer’s disease research, is studying how aging is associated with AD.  Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Brewer’s research uses mice with a form of the disease to determine whether nerve cells in the brain use glucose, a metabolic fuel, differently as a result of aging.

Brewer says early results from his research indicates that the effects of aging and AD may be partly reversed with a diet containing blueberries.  Other studies indicate a likely benefit of exercise.  He suggests the same recommendations of a healthy diet and physical exercise used for heart health also may be good for the brain.

Peter R. Patrylo, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology at SIU in Carbondale, is studying the relationship of glucose, diabetes and the aging brain.  Previous research has shown that diabetes is a known risk factor for AD.  Patrylo’s research uses a mouse model of AD to determine whether glucose levels change before the brain shows a cognitive decline and pathology changes – the presence of plaques and tangles associated with AD.  He also is trying to determine what causes the change in glucose tolerance and whether that can be slowed.

Robert G. Struble, Ph.D., associate professor of pathology, psychiatry and neurology, and research director for SIU’s Alzheimer’s Center, is studying the severity of AD pathology in autopsied tissue.  He is working to determine if external stimuli can modify the brain changes seen in AD.  He has found that AD patients who had visual impairment such as cataracts may have a different pattern of AD lesions in the visual areas of the brain than patients who did not have impairment.  This may mean that brain activity can influence the patterns of AD lesions, which is a new hypothesis in AD research.

In a second project, Struble is evaluating the distribution of the enzyme beta secretase (BACE) in human brains.  This is the first enzyme used in the formation of amyloid, a substance that is thought to cause the dementia in AD.  BACE is found in normal brains suggesting that amyloid has a role in normal brain function.  Tissue for the study is obtained through the autopsy program at CADRD.

Dr. Xiao-Xin Yan, assistant professor of anatomy at SIU in Carbondale, is studying the relationship of neuronal activity, metabolism, the formation of amyloid in the brain and its implications for AD.  The project has been funded by the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Struble, Patrylo, Andrzej Bartke, Ph.D., professor of internal medicine and physiology at SIU and SIUC distinguished scholar, and Oge Arum, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow for internal medicine, also are collaborating to study how brain cells process glucose.  As people age, their bodies do not process glucose as well.  Their research is studying whether glucose processing is decreased in the brain as well as the body.

Gregory M. Rose, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrated Research in Cognitive and Neural Sciences at SIUC is cross-appointed as professor of anatomy at the School of Medicine.  He is working with SIU’s Alzheimer’s Center investigating whether a decline in the good type of fats in the brains of mice with AD contributes to memory problems. The results of his research could lead to a new approach to diagnosing and treating AD in humans.

Established in 1970, SIU School of Medicine is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this year.  The School’s mission is to assist the people of central and southern Illinois in meeting their health needs through education, patient care, research and community service.

SIU’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders encourages collaboration in clinical studies, using its large patient population and in basic science studies, utilizing its expertise in human neurological disease and laboratory techniques.  It also provides clinical services to patients and their families and coordinates the Memory and Aging Network which includes more than 30 sites.  For information, call their Center at 217-545-7197 weekdays or go online, www.siumed.edu/alz.

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