Duke, UNC to create Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center with nearly $15 million from NIH

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) — Duke University announced in a press release Thursday morning that they and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have received funds from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC).

The funds come as part of a federally-funded national network of similar ARDCs, according to the release.

The research center will be one of 33 across the country and “will focus on identifying age-related changes across the lifespan that impact the development, progression, and experience of Alzheimer’s and related dementias.”

The center will also look at how factors that show up in early- and mid-life contribute to ethnic, geographic and racial disparities in dementia.

The NIH funding for the joint center is expected to come in at just under $15 million – $14.8 million – over the next five years, the release said.

“The new ADRC unites two extraordinary institutions in the effort to prevent, delay and treat Alzheimer’s by focusing on the known risk factors, including race, age, female sex and genetic predisposition,” said Rich O’Brien, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurology at Duke University School of Medicine. “We’ll also greatly advance our understanding of the brain and how it changes across the lifespan.”

The new ARDC is part of a collaboration between the two universities that began back in 2019.

According to Duke’s release, one “distinctive feature” of the joint center “is its focus on adults ages 45 to 80 years old and some as young as 25, seeking signals of dementia before memory problems surface.”

Researchers hope to develop ways to diagnose and determine new targets for Alzheimer’s treatments that either prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.

“It’s important to start recruiting people who are in early to middle adulthood and have a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s or dementia in the future,” said co-principal investigator Heather Whitson, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development. “That’s where the scientific payoff is — to understand what’s going on early.”

The release states that another important part of the project is its mission to better serve under-represented groups by increasing research and clinical trial participation among the groups. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is higher among Blacks and Latinos compared to whites — but research studies disproportionately include white participants.

“The reasons why dementia risk is higher among Black populations has not been well-studied,” said co-principal investigator Gwenn A. Garden, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the UNC Department of Neurology at the UNC School of Medicine. “Enrolling a diverse cohort that includes people with different lifestyles and racial backgrounds will help address risk in populations. This is important because we don’t know if current diagnostic approaches are as effective in populations that haven’t been well-studied.”

According to Duke, the NIH funding will allow teams from both universities “to engage local communities with new hypotheses about Alzheimer’s disease.”

The release listed the following projects that Duke says the schools will specifically be able to undertake thanks to the funding:

  • A study recruiting and following people from North Carolina who either have dementia or may be at risk for developing dementia later. This group of study participants will be younger and more diverse than many of the other cohorts followed by ADRCs around the country.
  • A project to collect and store samples such as blood or spinal fluid, along with brain images from people with well-characterized dementia or dementia risk. This project would help identify new biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, understand key biological changes that precede the onset of disease, and potentially identify targets for new therapies.
  • A Brain Bank that provides participants the opportunity to donate their brain to science.

With the new NIH ADRC designation, the Duke-UNC collaboration will be recognized as one of the NIH Centers of Excellence, according to Duke.

“We are excited to move forward with this designation as an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center,” Whitson said.

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