The IU School of Medicine received $44.7 million from the National Institutes of Health earlier this month. Its the largest ever single grant to benefit the study of a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease.
The grant will fund the Longitudinal Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Study, or LEADS, led by IU professor Liana Apostolova.
The study will focus on early-onset Alzheimer’s disease by enrolling and comparing 400 individuals with Alzheimer’s disease ages 40 to 64 to a number of cognitively normal individuals in the same age range.
“It’s important to investigate this type of disease because it’s behaving kind of aggressively,” Apostolova said. “It’s affecting people at a very young age, decades before it would ordinarily hit and it also progresses much faster.”
Apostolova said Alzheimer’s disease within this age range is labeled as early onset and is a more progressive form of the disease.
Apostolova said one of the goals of the study is to identify the genetic risk factors in early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that could help researchers better understand why people get the disease so early in life. She said this will hopefully lead to the discovery of therapeutic treatments to help slow or stop the progression of the disease in the future.
“If we were to find a therapeutic agent that is fast and potent in this population it might also be applicable to the late onset population and might lead to much faster discovery of a disease modifying drug that would change the landscape of Alzheimer's disease,” Apostolova said.
When Apostolova was a medical student, she said she was drawn to the study of neurology because it presented a challenging sense of detective work needed to solve the mystery of diagnosis. She said this passion for the study of cognition is what will motivate LEADS.
“The most intellectually stimulating part about brain function is cognition — what makes us uniquely human, the parts of the brain that allow us humans to have our human consciousness, our language, our memory, our abilities to modify the environment in a way that animals cannot,” Apostolova said.
The passion she found while studying cognition, Apostolova said, led her to study diseases that affect the brain’s core function, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s.
Although Apostolova is leading the study, LEADS will enroll participants at approximately 15 sites across the country, including the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Although She said these sites are just beginning to enroll now, but IU has been actively seeking participants since May and currently has 15 qualified participants enrolled in the study.
Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D. and a chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, will act as one of three co-principal investigators of LEADS. Carrillo said the Alzheimer’s Association will assist LEADS with participant recruitment and retention efforts and will use their large network to help the various sites communicate their findings.
“One possible result of this important and potentially groundbreaking research is that we come to understand with greater certainty whether early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s are the same disease,” Carrillo said.
Most of the research done on Alzheimer’s disease so far has been focused on the late-onset form of the disease because it affects more people, Apostolova said, but LEADS will see if the focus should be shifted.
“The majority of the research has gone towards the study of late onset Alzheimer’s and rightfully so because it affects 5.6 million Americans,” Apostolova said. “About 5 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. have early onset.”
Carrillo said that by focusing the research on participants suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease, they will broaden their understanding of the disease and give opportunities to those who would not have previously been considered for this type of study.
“Alzheimer’s in those who are affected by early-onset disease – before age 65 – is very poorly understood,” Carrillo said. “Yet, these individuals are rarely allowed to participate in research studies because they are younger and may not look or perform the same as their older counterparts.”
When it comes to determining where Alzheimer’s stems from, Apostolova said we only have about half of the genetic information required to paint a complete picture of the disease, but she said she hopes LEADS will help fill in those gaps.