Boston University’s Top Five Alzheimer’s Research Breakthroughs

From memory boosting to brain washing, Boston University advances the global fight against Alzheimer’s Disease

By Sari Cohen and Molly Gluck

Today, more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and that number is predicted to rise to 14 million by 2050. Whether it is finding a more accurate detection of the neurodegenerative disorder, uncovering new risk factors, or using electrostimulation to improve working memory, Boston University researchers are making headway in the worldwide effort to combat and treat the disease. To commemorate World Alzheimer’s Month, we bring you their top research discoveries.

Does racism impact cognition? The Black Women’s Health Study — which started surveying 59,000 African American women in their late 30s, and now follows those women’s health histories as their age approaches the mid-60s — reveals that experiences of racism are linked with decreased memory and cognition later in life. The School of Public Health researchers found that Black women who experienced the highest levels of interpersonal racism (such as hearing racial slurs) are 2.75 times more at risk of poor subjective cognitive function than those who experienced lower levels of interpersonal racism. Learn more about how these findings are leading to research examining whether exposure to racism accelerates progression to Alzheimer’s disease in Black individuals.

With new funding from the National Institute of Aging, Jennifer Weuve from the School of Public Health is kicking off two studies to explore the connections between air pollution, noise, and dementia. In the first study, Weuve is focusing on the effects of combined exposure to aircraft noise and traffic-related air pollution, to see how these exposures affect brain structure and cerebrovascular disease. The second study will shed light on whether the olfactory pathway, which carries information about odors from the nasal cavity to the brain, serves as an underlying mechanism for airborne toxicants to access the brain. Find out more about the impact of environmental exposures on Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Yet, because different people have different symptoms, it can be hard to get a clear diagnosis. That’s why Boston University School of Medicine’s Vijaya Kolachalama is finding ways to better detect the debilitating condition. Kolachalama created a deep learning algorithm that helps us to visualize the risk of Alzheimer’s and thus, helps lead to a more accurate diagnosis. See how this algorithm works, and the value in creating this kind of digital biomarker.

Did you know that embracing quality sleep could help fight Alzheimer’s disease? Researchers from the College of Engineering and Center for Systems Neuroscience published the first-ever study revealing the link between brain wave activity and blood flow during sleep. During non-REM sleep, our brains wash out toxic, memory-impairing proteins through large, slow waves of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). See how this could lead to insights about disorders that are associated with disrupted sleep patterns, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The working memory is the part of the mind where consciousness lives, and the part that is active whenever we make decisions, reason, recall our grocery lists, and (hopefully) remember where we left our things. Working memory starts to decline in our late 20s and early 30s — and by the time we reach our 60s and 70s, many of us experience noticeable cognitive difficulties. However, a groundbreaking study led by Rob Reinhart from the College of Arts & Sciences Psychological and Brain Sciences Department revealed that electrostimulation is able to improve working memory for people in their 70s to the point where their performance on memory tasks is indistinguishable from the performance of 20-year-olds. Electrostimulation uses noninvasive electrical currents to stimulate brain areas that have lost their rhythm. Learn more about how this brain boost can lead to a treatment for the millions of people around the world living with cognitive impairments — particularly those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Associate Director for Research at the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Professor of Neurology at the School of Medicine Dr. Andrew Budson shares his research and knowledge about the disease. He addresses common questions and myths about Alzheimer’s, highlights easy lifestyle changes that can help combat the disease, and shares tips for effectively interacting with and caring for a family member or loved one with the condition. Read full insights from Budson here.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow the School of Public Health at @BUSPH, the School of Medicine at @BUMedicine, the College of Engineering at @BUCollegeofENG, the Center for Systems Neuroscience at @buCSNneuro, the College of Arts & Sciences at @BU_CAS and the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at @BUmemoryloss.

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