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USF expands innovative research into Alzheimer’s

Mark Parker

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Volunteers participate in a study run by the University of South Florid called PACT (Preventing Alzheimer's with Cognitive Training.) USF was recently awarded more funding to investigate if the disease can be detected through blood tests. Photos provided

One in nine people over the age of 65 suffer from Alzheimer’s disease – colloquially known as “the long goodbye” – and the University of South Florida is dramatically expanding its innovative research into detecting and preventing the progressive disease.

USF recently received $3.2 million from the National Institute on Aging to investigate if medical professionals can detect Alzheimer’s through a simple blood test. The new funding follows a $44.4 million, five-year grant NIH awarded to the university last year to research if computerized brain training, or brain games, can reduce the risk of dementia in older adults. According to USF, the Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training (PACT) study is the largest primary prevention trial to “rigorously test the effectiveness of computer-based training.”

Dr. Jennifer O’Brien, associate professor of psychology and co-investigator for the studies, oversees the data collection, participant recruitment and management of the St. Petersburg site. While officially headquartered on the Tampa campus, she explained the importance of the USFP research, the need for thousands of more study participants and what the studies mean for a disease that is the fifth-leading cause of death for the adults over the age of 65.

“We’re kicking butt in St. Pete,” O’Brien told the Catalyst. “We are a big component of the project.

“Older adults in St. Pete are just super motivated to participate in research – specifically, to try and prevent dementia for themselves and the community.”

Dr. Jennifer O’Brien, associate professor of psychology and co-investigator for the studies, said the St. Petersburg site is in need of more participants.

Over 3 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, the leading cause of dementia each year. The progressive, chronic disease destroys memory and other vital mental functions by causing brain cells to degenerate and die. The condition is incurable and results in healthcare costs of over $300 billion. According to PubMed.gov, the expense will soon reach more than $1 trillion as the population continues aging.

Diagnosing dementia and Alzheimer’s currently requires invasive cerebrospinal fluid samples – spinal taps – or expensive PET scans. While the costly PET scans are less invasive, O’Brien noted that patients still receive radioactive injections.

“To be able to detect early and to then be able to intervene early is really key,” said O’Brien. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The biomarker and blood test research coincide with the ongoing PACT study. The university began a pilot program for PACT in 2019 but officially launched the trials in 2021 following the $44.4 million grant from NIH. O’Brien said the university is recruiting 7,600 older adults for PACT, enrolling 1,800 to date.

PACT participants can also offer blood samples and enroll in the latest study, which the school has yet to launch while officials implement the new funding. USF is actively enrolling participants through next year, and O’Brien stressed the need for more community participation – especially from the Hispanic and African American population, which she said was at a much higher risk for contracting the disease.

“African American and Black older adults are somewhere between two and four times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias than their white counterparts,” said O’Brien. “And Latino and Hispanic Americans are one and a half times more likely to get Alzheimer’s disease.

“So, it’s crucial that everybody is represented in these types of studies. We have a really big focus on our diversity recruitment for this study – but we need everybody who’s willing to participate.”

O’Brien said researchers are beginning to conduct post-testing interviews for participants enrolled in the 2019 PACT pilot. They are in the very early stages of collecting data for the study, which she said is the result of 30 years of research into cognitive training.

She said brain training has “very positive” and “measurable” impacts, including safer driving and a better overall quality of life. As part of the PACT study, O’Brien said researchers combed over medical records and found that participants that underwent cognitive training, especially those that did more than the minimum, were statistically less likely to have a dementia diagnosis.

“We are very – quite optimistic, to be honest,” said O’Brien. “That this is going to be effectual.”

O’Brien explained that the study is the first to conduct all research “in-house.” She said having clinical trial control over data collection and diagnosing should provide researchers with strong evidence.

“And we feel strongly that the odds are in our favor, if you will,” she added.

Due to the blind controls of the clinical trials, O’Brien could only describe the computer-based cognitive training in generalities. Participants complete what researchers call exercises two or three times a week for around an hour.

As an exercise, she said the training is meant to challenge participants and noted someone would not go to the gym for five hours every day of the week. “That’s about all I can say about it,” she said.

Researchers are examining cognitively healthy adults in the PACT study to see if brain training can prevent mental decline. While researchers currently focus on prevention, O’Brien said some evidence suggests that cognitive exercises are a beneficial treatment.

“We’re actually waiting to hear from the NIH about funding for a trial that’s similar to the PACT study,” she announced.

The study, called Active Minds, would target older adults already showing mild symptoms of cognitive impairment.

“The evidence is not quite as clear, or at least there’s not as much evidence to suggest that this would be a good treatment,” said O’Brien. “So, we’re actively trying to find evidence to support that or to see if the evidence supports that.”

For the blood study, O’Brien said the ability to detect the disease cheaply and non-invasively before it progresses would open the door for earlier interventions. She noted that once the condition reaches a certain point, possible treatments lose their efficacy.

While the blood diagnosis would not affect treatments directly, O’Brien said it would “certainly open up options.”

The university is not enrolling everyone at the same time. O’Brien called it a rolling enrollment across the first couple of years of the studies, which should conclude in 2026. Researchers still need 2,000 more participants, and O’Brien said the St. Petersburg offices need more residents to join the study.

She also stressed that all testing occurs locally, without needing to cross the bridge into Tampa.

O’Brien said it is rare to encounter anyone not affected by dementia in some way. She added that “everyone is scared of it,” even those not immediately impacted by the disease. However, she still has hope.

“I’m still very positive and optimistic – when it comes to our study of the disease and where we’re going with it,” said O’Brien. “It’s not 100% genetic; it’s not a death sentence. Your mom had it; your sibling has it – it does not mean that you are going to get it.

“And one of those things that you can do is brain exercise. So, I think the more studies like these that come out that show positive benefits – that keeps me optimistic.”

To participate in the trial, email jenobrien@usf.edu or call (727) 873-4090.

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