A four-pronged approach
Four UF Health researchers awarded grants to tackle Alzheimer’s disease
By Ansley Pentz
When Ann Horgas, Ph.D., R.N., FAAN, found out, she was driving her car. It was Friday, at 4:45 p.m.
Linda Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., FACE, was in her office. She screamed with joy.
Meredith Wicklund, M.D., and Dawn Bowers, Ph.D., were in clinic together. Bowers said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe it.”
The four UF Health faculty members said they were excited to find out they’d been awarded Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program grants from the Florida Department of Health. Together, they’ve been awarded almost $850,000 to better understand the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, how to innovatively
help those with it and how to integrate those communities into medical studies.
“We all have a common interest in the same end result,” said Wicklund, an assistant professor and former chief of the division of behavioral neurology in the UF College of Medicine’s department of neurology. “We want to help diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s disease — be it from different perspectives.”
Their research is all centered around helping older adults who suffer from dementia, which is a loss of brain function. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia and affects a person’s memory, thinking and behavior.
The four researchers are doing independent work, but they’re collaborating, too.
“You can’t do anything in a vacuum anymore,” said Cottler, dean and founding chair of the UF College of Public Health and Health Profession’s department of epidemiology. “It’s just not feasible or fun or appropriate anymore.”
The women said their work could help Florida’s older adults, who make up 19 percent of the population. Coupled with Florida’s high population, that means there are almost 4 million adults over 65 years old in the state.
To diagnose Alzheimer’s, it’s necessary to understand what causes it. That’s what Wicklund is researching: how to diagnose the disorder early so that it can be treated early. To do so, she will work with a team of scientists to develop testing methods that are sensitive enough to pick up on the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Data from the testing will then be put into a computerized algorithm that can be transferred between clinical sites.
Bowers said she approaches disease from a different perspective.
To treat people with mild cognitive impairment, Bowers, a professor with appointments in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of clinical and health psychology and the UF College of Medicine’s department of neurology, will research the effectiveness of a novel, innovative therapy.
The therapy is noninvasive and low-risk, and it will test to see if red and near-infrared light stimulation can help treat memory problems in patients with early signs of dementia. This type of stimulation improves the function of mitochondria — the organelles within the cell that produce energy — by promoting increased metabolism and blood flow and by increasing the ability of genes to process oxidative stress. Recent studies using this technique have found a reduction in the plaques and tangles in mice expected to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers hope the technique could help improve cognitive function for those with Alzheimer’s.
Horgas, an associate professor in the UF College of Nursing, will be looking at a different kind of intervention. She will research the effect the regular use of acetaminophen has on patients with dementia.
When people have dementia and are living in assisted-living and nursing home environments, they may exhibit “behavioral expressions,” said Horgas. These behaviors result, in part, from pain and include agitation, wandering and aggression. After reducing patients’ pain, the researchers hope that patients will act out less often, as behavioral expressions could be detrimental to patients or their caretakers.
If patients are more comfortable and in less pain, they might be able to enjoy their interactions more, Horgas explained.
To ensure people with Alzheimer’s are included in medical research and outreach programs, Cottler’s goal is to connect people with early memory impairment to UF HealthStreet, a program she created that connects Floridians to research opportunities.
The grant will allow HealthStreet’s community-engagement model to be expanded to 17 Florida counties where Alzheimer’s mortality rates are highest. Because older adults are often underrepresented in research, HealthStreet will make research opportunities more accessible and available for them.
All four researchers said they’re passionate about helping those with Alzheimer’s because the disease intimately affects families, including their own.
“We’re all humans and have very similar experiences at the same time,” Wicklund said. “Even though on the surface it seems like we’re very different, Alzheimer’s disease is a great equalizer.”
While their research is different, it all has the same goal.
“We hope that this will lead to further opportunities down the road for more research and will benefit the older people in Florida — and beyond,” Horgas said.