Einstein Study Lands $32M NIH Grant to Study Aging Brain

Margarida Maia, PhD avatar

by Margarida Maia, PhD |

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The Einstein Aging Study has received a $32 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to delve into the many risk factors that may determine cognitive decline and disease progression in people with Alzheimer’s.

The study, ongoing at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine since 1980, focuses on the brain and how it ages — both in healthy people and those with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

“In our fifth decade of the Einstein Aging Study, we are well-positioned to build on our earlier findings to identify ways to delay the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Richard Lipton, MD, vice chair of neurology at Einstein and Montefiore Health System, said in a press release. Lipton has led or co-led the study since 1992.

The exact causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood, but factors like age, family history, and certain genes may play a role. And, as with many other diseases, inequalities in race and ethnicity are linked to how Alzheimer’s begins and progresses over time.

“Black Americans are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than their white counterparts, and Hispanics are also at increased risk for the disease,” Lipton said. “In addition, diagnosis is often delayed in these historically marginalized communities. We need to do better and find ways to address these disparities.”

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To learn more, researchers are drawing on data from more than 2,500 participants, ages 70 and older, who live in the Bronx in New York. Of the participants, 40% are African American, 46% are non-Hispanic white, and 13% are Hispanic. The diversity of its participants puts the study in an ideal setting to investigate factors related to racial and ethnic inequalities.

“One of our study’s aims is to examine how social forces contribute to the inequities in cognitive health,” said Carol Derby, PhD, who co-leads the study.

“It is critical that we examine how race, ethnicity, neighborhood conditions, and discrimination are risk factors for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” Derby added.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep track of a group of participants because doing so would require patients to visit the study’s location regularly.

“In the past, we assessed cognition exclusively through in-person tests in our clinical laboratory,” said Mindy Joy Katz, the study’s project coordinator and a senior associate in the Saul R. Korey department of neurology at Einstein.

Now, the researchers plan to take advantage of mobile technology to track more than 700 participants, ages 60 and older, from their homes in the Bronx.

For two weeks each year, each of the participants will receive a smartphone with a custom setup that will push daily notifications to answer questions about their day and state of mind, and to play games that assess cognition.

“By giving our study participants smartphones, we’re able to measure cognitive performance directly as they engage in everyday activities in the community,” Katz said, adding that “these methods have also allowed us to follow people throughout the pandemic, when in-person visits were not safe.”

In addition to the smartphones, the participants also will receive wearable devices to monitor their physical activity, sleep, and blood sugar levels. Air pollution and other environmental factors also will be measured.

Taking repeated measurements over the course of several days rather than more sporadically in the lab “gives us a truer sense of a person’s cognitive abilities and how those abilities change from day to day, in the course of their daily lives,” Katz said.

Then, to pinpoint the mechanisms that may link risk factors to a cognitive decline, the researchers will look at certain genes and blood biomarkers.

“We know that there are a range of factors — medical, social, behavioral, environmental — that contribute to developing Alzheimer’s,” said Derby. “By teasing out each person’s individual experiences, we hope to one day provide custom therapies that will help people maintain brain health and stay cognitively healthy well into their later years.”