New Research Could Change Lives for Alzheimer's Patients with Down Syndrome

Exploring Early Detection and Prevention

Utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to research, a team led by the University of Denver will apply funds from a multi-million dollar grant to study the links between Alzheimer's disease and Down Syndrome. The grant, awarded by the National Institutes of Health, will spur cooperation between areas of study and across the DU campus and beyond, allowing the researchers to approach the nation's sixth-leading cause of death with tools from multiple disciplines. 

Though the general scientific understanding of Alzheimer's disease has progressed, it's still unclear how early stages of the affliction can be detected and exploited through early intervention. Focusing the study on Alzheimer's patients with Down Syndrome provides a uniquely useful window for researchers—nearly 80 percent of individuals with Down Syndrome develop Alzheimer's or dementia as they age, increasing the likelihood that study will effectively isolate the beginning signs of Alzheimer's in the brain early enough to enable treatment before the disease progresses.

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About the Study

Alzheimer's disease is one of the most prevalent neurological diseases in the United States, with approximately 5.8 million individuals afflicted (with that number predicted to more than double by 2050). As such, the demand for effective treatments, especially those than can be implemented in a preventative fashion early in life, will continue to rise. Catalyzed by the urgency and the profound human impact of the disease, the research team at DU will explore how the tau protein develops tangles that correlate with Alzheimer's and dementia. 

Using a comparative framework to develop public-good-focused knowledge, researchers will compare the tau protein's behavior in individuals with Down Syndrome to determine whether they resemble the tangles that correlate with Alzheimer's, or if they are more similar to the neurological patterns observed in individuals with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE, known best for its connections to concussions among athletes). Explaining the importance of this distinction, Lotta Granholm-Bentley, Executive Director for DU's Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, says, “Once we know that, we can design new treatment paradigms that can actually target a particular form of tau and maybe prevent the [Alzheimer’s] from happening.”

Given the high likelihood of an individual with Down Syndrome developing Alzheimer's, the study has significant potential to illuminate new information about the behavior of the tau protein that could enable early treatments. While some medications targeting Alzheimer's have been developed and tested on mice and humans with advanced forms of the disease, it is difficult to assess the efficacy of these treatments due to the progressive nature of the disease. Seeking to develop new early-detection strategies, researchers will also explore the role of exosomes, which are tiny bubbles excreted by living cells. Blood tests may show traces of the tau protein in these exosomes, which could be an early indicator of Alzheimer's risk that could be treated with new medications in the future.

About the Research Team

The generous award from the National Institutes of Health funds a cross-disciplinary team led by Lotta Granholm-Bentley from the DU-based Knoebel Institute for Healthy Aging, alongside Martin Margittai, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the DU College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The funds will power the project for five years, enabling the team to work with institutions abroad in places like Barcelona and Stockholm, while also including the expertise of researchers from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona.