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USF receives $24 million for innovative dementia research

Mark Parker



University of South Florida researchers hope to prove that computerized brain games can help prevent dementia and mitigate its effects. Photos:

Researchers at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg have received a five-year, $24 million grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to expand its ground-breaking dementia prevention research.

Alzheimer’s disease, colloquially known as “the long goodbye,” is the most common form of dementia and affects over five million Americans. While there is no cure, USF researchers hope to prove computerized brain training can mitigate its effects.

The funding supports the new Active Mind clinical research study, and local researchers need volunteers over the age of 65 and with some cognitive decline to participate. Dr. Jennifer O’Brien, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator on the St. Petersburg campus, said preliminary results are encouraging.

“We have some previous study evidence … showing that those who’ve done this type of training were almost 50% less likely than their counterparts to have a dementia diagnosis 10 years later,” O’Brien said. “So, these studies are following up on that crucial finding to see how effective training can be at reducing our dementia risk.”

Active Mind volunteers will complete at least 40 hours of computerized exercises over the two-year study. They receive a free iPad and can participate at the St. Pete or Tampa campus.

Due to the blind controls of the clinical trials, O’Brien could only describe the computer-based cognitive training in generalities. She said participants solve puzzles and called the brain games “quite interactive and visual and auditory.”

The latest dementia funding follows a $3.2 million NIH grant in 2022 to investigate if medical professionals can detect Alzheimer’s through a simple blood test. In 2021, USF received $44.4 million from the agency’s National Institute on Aging for the Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training (PACT) study.

“When you hear these numbers, they’re huge,” O’Brien said. “But in reality, it’s actually not a whole lot of money per participant that we need to enroll because of all of the staff that’s required to conduct the study.”

Alzheimer’s is a progressive, chronic disease that destroys memory and vital mental functions by causing brain cells to degenerate and die. The incurable condition results in healthcare costs of over $300 billion.

Experts believe 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 radioactive injections and expensive PET scans.

While PACT – which is ongoing – studies computer-based training’s effectiveness on healthy adults, Active Mind focuses on people showing mild cognitive decline. O’Brien said researchers are still collecting data on the initial studies.

She noted that over 2,000 people participated in the previous research. O’Brien said that underscores the urgency to find preventative treatments and the community’s motivation to support “this really important science.”

“We’re striving to include our Black and Hispanic older adults in the community, in part because they are so disproportionately more likely to be diagnosed with dementia,” she added. “And they tend to be underrepresented in clinical research trials like this.”

Dr. Jennifer O’Brien, associate professor of psychology and principal investigator on the St. Petersburg campus.

O’Brien said USF still needs hundreds of volunteers for the studies. Research suggests that delaying dementia’s effects by a year would result in millions of fewer cases, easing the burden on families and the healthcare industry.

She explained that cognitive decline typically accelerates by age 75 and increases each following year. While it is not the current medical recommendation, she said people over 55 should “probably” begin brain exercises.

“An ideal result would be the adoption of effective cognitive training exercises that have the scientific results behind them,” O’Brien said. “And then support to access those. It requires technology to access …”

She said it was “obviously a really good sign” that the NIH continues awarding millions of dollars to support USF’s dementia research. O’Brien said the government sees promise in the studies and the local scientists.

O’Brien remains optimistic that the research can prove the benefits of brain games. She said that would have a significant impact on individuals, their families, the healthcare system and the overall economy.

“Even if it’s not curing but it’s delaying the onset,” O’Brien added. “It’s (dementia) just so overwhelming. So, any reduction would have a significant impact.”

For information on volunteering, visit the website here or call (727) 873-4090.


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