AFA Awards $518K for Study of Neuroimmune Interactions in AD Onset, Progression

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by Mary Chapman |

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AFA grant, Broad Institute, One Mind

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) has awarded $518,391 in research grant funding to the Broad Institute and One Mind to study the role of the brain’s immune cells in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The hope is that, with more understanding of immune cells and brain inflammatory processes, scientists can learn more about how Alzheimer’s works. In turn, that could lead to new and better treatments for the neurodegenerative disease.

Researchers at the Broad Institute and elsewhere are currently exploring a new concept: that Alzheimer’s onset and progression may be fueled by microglia, a type of neuronal support cell that occurs in the central nervous system and that functions chiefly as an immune cell.

With increasing patient age, and the factoring in of certain genetics, microglia respond to the protein amyloid-beta — which accumulates in nerve cells and is thought to underlie the development of Alzheimer’s — in a way that causes inflammation.

Scientists hypothesize that this, in turn, prompts microglia to remove brain synapses, or the junctions between two nerve cells that allow them to communicate. The loss of too many synapses causes dementia.

“We already know that amyloid beta peptides deposited in amyloid plaques [clumps of misfolded proteins] play an important role in Alzheimer’s disease,” Beth Stevens, PhD, a Broad Institute board member who is studying this new insight, said in a press release.

“Emerging genetic evidence from the common later-onset form of Alzheimer’s disease points to failures in how the microglia handle and remove toxic amyloid beta peptides. These findings suggest that therapeutic interventions targeting microglia and other immune cells could be a way to combat Alzheimer’s, but this research is still in its infancy,” said Stevens, also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

“As an organization dedicated to brain health, we are excited about the innovation and potential of the research being done by Dr. Stevens and her lab at the Broad Institute, and are grateful to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America for providing this critical support,” said Brandon Staglin, president of One Mind, a patient-led and patient-centric mental health non-profit.

In collaboration with One Mind, the Broad Institute will employ new, single-cell RNA tools that aid in the extensive characterization of individual microglia and immune cells. This could result in a greater understanding of the biological mechanisms of Alzheimer’s and help to identify the biomarkers needed to detect the disease early, monitor its progression, and develop treatments.

“We are excited by this innovative approach to Alzheimer’s disease,” said Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., AFA president and CEO. “We understand there is much work to be done in the area of immunity and inflammatory processes of the brain and are hopeful that [the research by] Dr. Stevens and her team will lead to identifying biomarkers for early detection and [to] guide treatment.”

“New strategies to understand this devastating disease are needed to address the growing Alzheimer’s epidemic worldwide,” Fuschillo added.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard evolved from a decade of research collaborations among scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University communities.

One Mind is an international nonprofit that supports brain research.

The AFA grant will fund a three-year study by the Broad and One Mind.