Wayne State Receives NIH Grant to Develop AD Diagnosis, Focusing on African Americans

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Voyko Kavcic, Ph.D., a Research Assistant Professor in the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University received a grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). The grant consists of $420,000 over two years to support research on whether electroencephalograms (EEGs) and cognitive tests can detect early signs of AD.

Kavic is particularly interested in detecting signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can be an early sign of AD. MCI consists of subtle problems in language, mental functioning and memory. MCI usually does not create major problems with day-to-day functioning, so it can often be missed.  Detecting MCI is particularly important for elderly African Americans, who develop MCI and Alzheimer’s twice as often as Caucasians, but are less likely to be treated earlier in the disease.

“We want to develop affordable, comfortable ways to test for evidence of these disorders so it is easier for older African Americans,” Kavcic said. “People with transportation or mobility problems shouldn’t have to navigate large, confusing medical centers to get answers. Why not take the test to them?”

Convenience may assist in testing African Americans.

“This is a community-based approach,” said Kavcic. “If we want more people to be diagnosed and treated, testing must be easy, fast, cheap and readily accepted. The tests we propose can be conducted in a church basement or a senior center. Older African Americans are at highest risk to develop Alzheimer’s from MCI, so they are the priority.”

Kavcic is also working with collaborators Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) Associate Director Bruno Giordani, Ph.D., and Edna Rose, Ph.D. The study will examine 200 African Americans with self-identified memory problems.

African Americans may be reluctant to participate in research studies, due to historical abuses of minorities in research and subsequent mistrust.

Peter Lichtenberg, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Gerontology and the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at Wayne State University noted, “Six years ago it would have been extremely difficult to find larger numbers of African American elders in Detroit willing to participate. Through trust-building, outreach and education, more than 1,200 volunteers now fill the database.”

“We want to know if the simple EEG is as effective as more expensive, time consuming and far less available approaches in identifying the mild cognitive changes that lead to Alzheimer’s,” said Kavcic. “With this approach, we could easily reach thousands more of the high-risk minorities who often go undiagnosed,” he said.

The study may indeed help diagnosis and treatment in an under-served population of individuals who are at high risk for cognitive impairment and AD.