Texas Researchers Analyze Why Alzheimer’s Strikes Hispanics Earlier in Life

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by Alice Melão |

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Alzheimer's Hispanics

Dr. Sid O’Bryant, professor at the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. (Photo courtesy UNTHSC)

Investigators at University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNTHSC) in Fort Worth want to understand why people of Hispanic descent develop cognitive loss and Alzheimer’s disease earlier than non-Hispanics.

Their new study, funded by a $12 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, aims to add knowledge on the early events that cause Alzheimer’s. It may also lead to more personalized and adequate therapies based on the specific biology of Hispanics.

“This is the first project to specifically attempt to understand how different biological causes relate to Alzheimer’s disease across ethnicities,” Sid O’Bryant, professor at the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, said in a news release. “By looking at different potential causes related to memory loss, we may be able to target the right pathway at the right time with the right intervention.”

O’Bryant’s team is conducting its project in collaboration with Dr. Arthur W. Toga of the University of Southern California Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, and Dr. Kristin Yaffe of the University of California-San Francisco’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences, and other institutions.

The five-year study will enroll 1,000 Mexican-Americans and 1,000 non-Hispanic whites from northern Texas. All participants must be 50 years or older, and will be examined twice during the study for advanced brain imaging, cognitive testing, blood analysis and a general health interview.

Researchers expect the information they gather will answer not only why Mexican-Americans develop cognitive loss and Alzheimer’s earlier than non-Hispanic whites, but other questions as well. For example, previous studies have shown that Hispanics are at higher risk for depression and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. The UNTHSC team and its collaborators want to see if these factors contribute to cognitive loss and Alzheimer’s among Hispanics.

“It could be that diabetes and metabolic dysfunction or depression — or perhaps a combination of both — are of major importance to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease among Mexican-Americans,” O’Bryant said, noting that Hispanics faces a greater risk of developing diabetes than non-Hispanics and are about 50 percent more likely to die from the disease. The same is true for depression, which Hispanics face as much as a 44 percent increased risk of developing than non-Hispanic whites.

According to UNTHSC, the number of Hispanics diagnosed with Alzheimer’s will likely grow by more than 800 percent, reaching one million by 2030. Yet data about this fast-growing population is extremely limited, with Hispanics accounting for under 1 percent of participants in clinical trials involving Alzheimer’s.

During the study, O’Bryant’s team plans to evaluate the diagnostic validity of a blood test he developed. This new tool can potentially improve diagnostic accuracy in primary-care consultations by recognizing early signs of cognitive impairment and specific disease biomarkers of Alzheimer’s.

“We hope to keep this study going for 20-plus years, so we are better able to predict who is at risk,” O’Bryant said. “Then we can start designing preventions specifically tailored for Mexican-American older adults.”

For additional information about the study or to participate, please call UNTHSC at (817) 735-2963.