Penn State University: New funding will continue research to address Alzheimer’s disease and dementia

Researchers on the Einstein Aging Study work to better understand cognitive aging, Alzheimer’s disease, and related dementias. A new $32 million grant from the National Institute on Aging will allow an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Penn State, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and other institutions to continue the Einstein Aging Study for five more years.

“For generations, this study’s researchers have made important contributions to our understanding of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Orfeu Buxton, Elizabeth Fenton Susman Professor of Biobehavioral Health

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia create serious issues for millions of aging Americans, but there are reasons to hope that improved treatment and eventual cure are possible. According to a recent report, an estimated 40% of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed by targeting modifiable behavioral, physical health, and psychosocial risk factors.

“The history of this incredible program began in the 1980’s, and the study has been in the forefront of aging research since. During this renewal, I am honored to serve on the leadership team with Richard Lipton and Carol Derby at Albert Einstein College of Medicine,” said Orfeu Buxton, Elizabeth Fenton Susman Professor of Biobehavioral Health. “For generations, this study’s researchers have made important contributions to our understanding of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Our research team is proud to contribute our expertise and ideas to this project.”

Penn State’s team on this grant is led by Buxton, Jennifer Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health, and Christopher Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health. Each co-leads a project studying a population of older adults from the Bronx, New York, the second most racially diverse county in the nation.

Penn State’s excellence in facilitating interdisciplinary research is essential to this research. The study includes faculty from across the College of Health and Human Development, including Ruixue Zhaoyang in the Center for Healthy Aging; Buxton, Graham-Engeland, Engeland, Kyle Murdock, and Idan Shalev in the Department of Biobehavioral Health; Alyssa Gamaldo in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies; and David Conroy in the Department of Kinesiology. Jonathan Hakun in the Department of Neurology in the College of Medicine and Nelson Roque, formerly in Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging and now at University of Central Florida, are also working on the study. Buxton noted that the Social Sciences Research Institute provided instrumental support for the project.

“The success of this project reflects the unique strength of Penn State at fostering and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration. A disease as complex as Alzheimer’s disease needs an approach that integrates perspectives from psychology, behavioral medicine, biology, and environmental and public health, and our team does just that,” said Graham-Engeland.

“Additionally, this grant renewal is an excellent opportunity for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars to work in a big, high-impact ,team-science project through the Center for Healthy aging Pathways T-32 training grant,” Graham-Engeland continued. “It will also allow the trainees and other researchers to submit ancillary proposals such as NIH R01, R03, and other grant mechanisms to harness the depth of this project.”

New frontiers in understanding Alzheimer’s disease
The research projects in the study will develop knowledge to improve outcomes for older people who are at risk of or suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

“Each of the four main projects in the new Einstein Aging Study grant will be highly innovative and will meaningfully expand what is known about risk factors for cognitive aging and dementia. These projects will enable greater ability to predict who is at highest risk and will illuminate specific targets for future intervention, ultimately helping pave the way for tailored interventions to reduce risk — or delay onset — of cognitive aging and dementia,” said Engeland.

One research project will examine the links between health behaviors (including sleep and physical activity), social context (including experiences of discrimination), and Alzheimer’s disease. The use of mobile technologies like smartwatches and biosensors in these studies will allow researchers to gain a more nuanced understanding of participants’ behavior and the relationships between these factors. During some portions of the study, participants will complete surveys on their phones to clarify their social contexts. Any important relationships that are discovered may be preventable because people can modify their sleep behaviors and activity levels.

The success of this project reflects the unique strength of Penn State at fostering and supporting interdisciplinary collaboration.”

Jennifer Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health

Another research project will examine how the risk factors of depression, systemic inflammation, and accelerated biological aging relate to each other in regard to Alzheimer’s risk. Additionally, because Black Americans are twice as likely to suffer from the disease as white Americans, the researchers will study how these factors relate to known racial disparities in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Air pollution previously has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. In a third project, researchers will collect data on exposure to air pollution to better understand how such exposures increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

In another project, the researchers will monitor blood glucose levels among participants with type 2 diabetes and study the relationship between blood glucose regulation and cognitive function. Their goal is to inform care for adults with type 2 diabetes that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

In addition to these four research projects, the Einstein Aging Study will continue to maintain infrastructure that supports data and bio-sample collection, a brain autopsy program, cutting-edge biomarker analysis (e.g., autophagy via postmortem collection of brain tissue, genetics, magnetic resonance imaging, blood-based neurodegenerative markers), administration, statistical analyses, and data management. A study of this complexity is possible only with the highest level of support and collaboration.

“Science and scientific progress are cumulative and collaborative by nature,” Buxton said. “But when you work on a study that involves so many disciplines and has such a long history, you are continually reminded of the administrative and scientific opportunities and challenges that are inherent in addressing problems as complex as Alzheimer’s and dementia. We have a great team assembled, and we are very excited to see what the next five years of research can do to promote healthy aging.”

Decades of innovation and progress
Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have been leading this study for nearly four decades. For the last five years, Penn State faculty have also been on the leadership team. The study continues as a collaboration between these two institutions and Columbia University Medical Center, Mayo Clinic, University of Central Florida, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Delaware, and Yeshiva University.

Carol Derby, one of the study’s principal investigators and research professor and Lois and Gertrude Feil Faculty Scholar in Neurology in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology and the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, is eager to take the next steps toward identifying modifiable risk factors for cognitive decline in older adults.

“The fact that we focus on early markers of cognitive decline within a diverse, population-based sample makes us well positioned to advance knowledge of potential strategies for delaying or preventing cognitive decline. Given that there are currently no treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, this is critically important,” said Derby.

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