Northwestern University: Mesulam Center receives $10.4 million grant to fund Primary Progressive Aphasia research

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The Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine has been awarded a $10.4 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) to support the center’s ongoing research on Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA).

Dr. Marsel Mesulam, director of the Mesulam Center, identified the disease and coined the term in 1982. The center continues to be a global leader in PPA research.

This award will enable the Mesulam Center to continue its 15-year-long study of PPA and focus on enrolling and supporting newly diagnosed persons each year. The grant also will support the Mesulam Center’s effort to increase representation of traditionally underrepresented groups in research studies including Black/African American and Hispanic/ Latino communities and raise awareness in their communities, a primary goal of the center.

PPA is a relatively uncommon dementia syndrome, in which an individual experiences progressive loss of language and communication, which negatively impacts their daily quality of life. Adults of any age can develop PPA, but it is most often diagnosed in persons under 65. Nearly 40% of PPA is caused by Alzheimer’s disease neuropathology.

Mesulam and Emily Rogalski, associate director of the Mesulam Center, will co-lead this new award.

“We will deepen our focus over the next five years, following precision medicine approaches to uncover disease-specific anatomic, cellular, molecular and genetic understanding of PPA,” Rogalski said. “We are grateful for the dedication of the individuals living with PPA and their families who continue to help us advance our understanding of the syndrome.”

Since Mesulam discovered PPA in the 1980s, research has expanded exponentially, making it possible to accurately define the syndrome and identify key risk factors.

“The identification of PPA initiated three pivotal insights that still dominate this field of neurology — namely that dementia can be caused by entities other than Alzheimer’s disease, that not all dementias impair memory and that dementias can arise well before old age, in the 40s and 50s,” Mesulam said. “Advances in PPA also stand to make the pejorative term ‘dementia’ obsolete by showing that it is both too inclusive and too ambiguous for research and patient care.”

Prior to receiving this grant, Mesulam and Rogalski each led NIH-funded grants to research PPA with different methods, which have been running in parallel for 15 and 10 years, respectively. In 2021, they submitted a combined, comprehensive grant with co-investigators specializing in different disciplines, including innovative methods to characterize clinical trajectories, precision brain imaging, genetic studies and detailed investigations of the abnormal proteins and neuropathologic entities causing this syndrome. Collectively, these investigations aim to inform and improve diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options for PPA and related neurodegenerative dementia syndromes.

“Our PPA research program includes key experts covering topics from cells to social work who are sharply focused on improving diagnosis, care and interventions for those with PPA and related dementias,” Rogalski said.

“The identification of PPA initiated three pivotal insights that still dominate this field of neurology — namely that dementia can be caused by entities other than Alzheimer’s disease, that not all dementias impair memory and that dementias can arise well before old age, in the 40s and 50s,” Mesulam said. “Advances in PPA also stand to make the pejorative term ‘dementia’ obsolete by showing that it is both too inclusive and too ambiguous for research and patient care.”

Prior to receiving this grant, Mesulam and Rogalski each led NIH-funded grants to research PPA with different methods, which have been running in parallel for 15 and 10 years, respectively. In 2021, they submitted a combined, comprehensive grant with co-investigators specializing in different disciplines, including innovative methods to characterize clinical trajectories, precision brain imaging, genetic studies and detailed investigations of the abnormal proteins and neuropathologic entities causing this syndrome. Collectively, these investigations aim to inform and improve diagnosis, prognosis and treatment options for PPA and related neurodegenerative dementia syndromes.

“Our PPA research program includes key experts covering topics from cells to social work who are sharply focused on improving diagnosis, care and interventions for those with PPA and related dementias,” Rogalski said.

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