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The NIH-funded center of excellence will focus on identifying early changes in dementia and factors driving disparities. The UNC-Chapel Hill principal investigator is Gwenn Garden, MD, PhD, chair and professor of the UNC Department of Neurology.

Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been awarded funds from the National Institutes of Health to establish a prestigious Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC), part of a federally-funded national network of similar centers.

The Duke-UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, one of 33 nationwide, 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 identify how factors that arise in early- and mid-life contribute to racial, ethnic and geographic disparities in dementia.

NIH funding for the joint Duke-UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is expected to total $14.8 million over the next five years.

“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 age, female sex, race, and genetic predisposition,” said Rich O’Brien, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Neurology at Duke. “We’ll also greatly advance our understanding of the brain and how it changes across the lifespan.”

The Duke-UNC center is part of a unique collaboration between the two universities that began in 2019. It unites experts from a wide range of disciplines that include geriatrics, neurology, psychiatry, radiology, bioinformatics and pathology.

A distinctive feature of the Duke-UNC 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. By identifying these biological processes, researchers may be able to develop tools for earlier diagnosis and determine new targets for treatments that prevent or delay onset.

“A lot of data are looking at people who already have disease, but it’s become increasingly clear that we may learn more if we start earlier,” said co-principal investigator Heather Whitson, MD, professor of medicine and director of the Duke Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.

“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,” Whitson said. “That’s where the scientific payoff is – to understand what’s going on early.”

Another key element of the Duke-UNC project is its mission to increase research and clinical trial participation among under-represented groups. The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is higher among both Blacks and Latinos compared to whites, yet 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, MD, PhD, 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.”

Along with Garden, UNC collaborators are:

Andrea Bozoki, MD, professor of neurology chief of the division of cognitive disorders

Jan Busby-Whitehead, MD, professor and chief of the division of geriatric medicine,
director of the UNC Center for Aging and Health, and the M. Andrew Greganti Distinguished Professor of Medicine

Todd Cohen, PhD, assistant professor of neurology

Stephen Frye, PhD, the Fred Eshelman Distinguished Professor at the Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy

Laura Hanson, MD, MPH, professor of medicine and medical director of the UNC Palliative Care Program

Stephen Kizer, MD, professor and vice chief of the division of geriatric medicine, and
medical director of the UNC Geriatrics Clinic

Zibo Li, PhD, professor of radiology

Weili Lin, PhD, the Dixie Lee Boney Soo Distinguished Professor, Neurological Medicine, and director of the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center

Mingxia Liu, PhD, research instructor in the UNC Department of Radiology

Samantha Meltzer-Brody, MD, MPH, the Assad Meymandi Distinguished Professor and Chair of the UNC Department of Psychiatry, and director of the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders

Ellen Roberts, MPH, PhD, associate professor of medicine

Heidi Roth, MD, assistant professor of neurology

Eric Smith, PharmD, professor of radiology

Roseanne Tiller, MD, assistant professor of medicine

Jenny Ting, PhD, W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Genetics

Xiaopeng Zong, PhD, assistant professor of radiology

Mark Zylka, PhD, director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and W.R. Kenan Distinguished Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology

Whitson and Garden said the NIH funding will enable teams from both institutions to engage local communities with new hypotheses about Alzheimer’s disease. Specific projects for local community members to consider participation include:

  • 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, in order to identify new biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease, or understand key biological changes that precede the onset of disease (and may be targets for new therapies).
  • A brain bank that provides participants the opportunity to donate their brain to science.

With the NIH ADRC designation, the Duke/UNC collaboration will be recognized as one of the NIH Centers of Excellence. Additionally, as part of the network of centers, this new center will share important research with other ADRCs throughout the country, including data, biological samples, genetic information, therapeutic targets, and imaging and biomarkers, helping scientists across the country and the world learn more about dementia at a faster pace.

The National Institute on Aging, part of the NIH, established the ADRC network in 1984 to advance research in Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Among their achievements, the centers have made strides in better understanding the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, distinguished differences between normal cognitive changes vs. those associated with dementia and conducted clinical trials on potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are excited to move forward with this designation as an Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center,” Whitson said. “It will enhance our missions to engage with our community, to educate patients and families about dementia and options for top-notch care and research and to nurture and educate rising students and young investigators who also represent the diversity of our State and will become tomorrow’s leaders in our fight against Alzheimer’s disease.”

The Duke-UNC center was funded by NIH grant P30AG072958. Read the NIH announcement here.

UNC School of Medicine contact: Mark Derewicz