Health & Fitness

UM researchers to look at Alzheimer’s in Hispanics

Dr. Clinton Wright, a neurologist at University of Miami's UHealth, will be studying Alzheimer’s disease in Hispanics.
Dr. Clinton Wright, a neurologist at University of Miami's UHealth, will be studying Alzheimer’s disease in Hispanics. el Nuevo Herald

A team of University of Miami neurologists, working with other medical professionals across the country, has received a multimillion-dollar grant to help identify early signs of Alzheimer’s in Hispanics.

The study will take place over five years. The National Institute on Aging, which awarded the $5.67 million grant, is hoping the findings may help to delay or prevent the onset of the Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disorder that leads to the loss of cognitive skills.

“Alzheimer's decays and destroys brain cells and causes loss of memory,” said Dr. Clinton Wright, a neurologist at the University of Miami's UHealth health system and science director at the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at UM's Miller School of Medicine.

As the disease develops, a protein fragment known as beta-amyloid, strongly linked to Alzheimer’s, begins destroying the brain’s synapses, and eventually clumps into plaques that lead to the death of the brain’s nerve cells.

An estimated 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. Hispanics have been reported to have a higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s, although that has never been proven.

“There are studies suggesting that Hispanics have a higher risk, but there are others that contradict that,” Wright said. “We want to find proof.”

An estimated one-third of the U.S. population will be of Hispanic background by 2050.

“The growth of the Latin and Hispanic population in the United States makes it very important to understand these factors, so we can design measures in the field of public health,” Wright said. “Alzheimer’s is a very big problem that gets worse as the number of elderly people grows.”

One part of the study will examine the risks associated with neuro-cognitive deterioration, such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as lifestyle factors like smoking. Complex genetic and socio-economic factors are also believed to affect the disease.

“One of the principal goals of our research is to establish the difference between a slight cognitive deficiency and a disability appropriate to old age,” said Neil Schneiderman, Ph. D., a member of UM’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and principal investigator at the Miami Field Center for the Study of Latinos-Investigation of Neurocognitive Aging (SOL-INCA).

SOL is a broader and more comprehensive study that predates SOL-INCA by several years. In Miami-Dade County, SOL included more than 4,000 participants, most of them from Cuba and Central and South America. Researchers collected information on diseases, mental health, sleeping habits and genetic profiles. The results showed a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and smoking among some groups.

But not all of the people with a slight cognitive deficiency develop Alzheimer's disease, Schneiderman said.

The UM scientists will collaborate with research teams in other medical centers around the country to compile information from about 7,000 people, aged 50 to 80, who show signs of a slight cognitive deterioration suspected of early evidence of Alzheimer's.

Joining UM will be the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and San Diego State University. Dr. Hector González at the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine in Chapel Hill will be in charge of coordinating the study.

A slight confusion or memory loss may be the only notable symptoms at the start of Alzheimer's. That's why as people age, many of them worry about small memory lapses that for many specialists are normal, such as forgetting the location of their keys or the names of friends. But if the memory loss persists or worsens and affects the ability to function at work or at home, a person should be seen by a doctor.

“It's difficult to know when to go to a specialist. That should be determined by the patients and relatives around them when they see symptoms that worry them.” Wright said.

A preliminary evaluation, he explained, should be carried out by a multidisciplinary team of neurologists and psychologists. The most precise test so far is a Positron Emission Tomography (PET), generally not covered by insurance companies.

Follow Ivonne Gomez on @Ivonnegomezcam