Research in the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center has two main focus areas:
- Patient-oriented (clinical) research
- Basic science (laboratory) research
The clinical side of research — also known as the patient-oriented side — focuses on investigating the very earliest phases of cognitive impairment that may ultimately develop into Alzheimer's disease.
Mayo Clinic neurologists examine patients, take careful family histories, administer memory tests and use imaging, such as magnetic resonance imaging, to examine various regions of the brain.
Three main focus areas in patient-oriented research are:
The Alzheimer's Disease Research Center studies the entire spectrum of aging, from normal aging to mild cognitive impairment to dementia in cooperation with the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, one of the largest and longest running studies on aging, began in 2004 and has recruited more than 3,000 people.
The Mayo Clinic Study of Aging is a population-based study of cognitively normal older adults ranging in age from 50 to 89 who live in Olmsted County, Minn. Through yearly contact with the participants, Mayo Clinic researchers hope to be able to develop prediction models that will help differentiate and better understand people who are aging well from those who experience a cognitive decline. Researchers want to determine who is at risk of cognitive decline well before symptoms are noticed, which could ultimately aid in the discovery of strategies for prevention.
Mild cognitive impairment
The transitional period between the cognitive changes of normal aging and very early Alzheimer's disease is called mild cognitive impairment. Mayo Clinic researchers are active in describing the clinical features of people with mild cognitive impairment and follow them longitudinally.
Researchers in the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center also have learned about factors that can predict whose symptoms will progress to Alzheimer's disease at a more rapid rate. The center's researchers are involved in clinical trials of treatments designed to alter this rate of progression.
Another major aspect of patient-oriented research in the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center involves dementias other than Alzheimer's disease, including frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia. Many people with frontotemporal dementia or Lewy body dementia are being followed both longitudinally and in clinical trials by the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.
Neuroscience research laboratories at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., are continuing to develop new and more-effective therapies in preparation for testing in clinical trials.
In addition, the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Jacksonville has established a cohort of 300 older African-Americans with normal aging and is following them longitudinally to determine what risk factors might lead to Alzheimer's disease. These studies have resulted in increased understanding about risk factors involving genetics, blood proteins and neuroimaging characteristics, all of which might be useful in developing prediction models for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.
Basic science research
Basic science, or laboratory research, studies the cellular and molecular processes that cause nerve cells in the brain to stop functioning and die during aging, as well as the role of genes in affecting the risk of developing an aging-related disease.
Investigators with the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center have been studying autopsy material from people followed in the research center to learn about the underlying pathological causes of the various dementia disorders, with emphasis on Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal dementia.
In addition, the center's investigators are also able to learn about the underlying foundation of normal aging changes in the brain because of older participants with normal aging who volunteer for research projects. This helps researchers understand changes found in the brains of people with dementia-related diseases.
Pathological causes of Alzheimer's Disease
Investigators with the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center have made significant progress in studying two proteins, amyloid and tau, that are strongly implicated in the development and progression of dementia in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
- Amyloid protein. Researchers in Florida are studying the characteristics of the amyloid protein itself and genetic factors that could predispose people to developing this protein. Studies involving both humans and mouse models of Alzheimer's disease have yielded potential diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's disease.
- Tau protein. Memory loss in Alzheimer's disease is associated with abnormal clumping of tau protein in cells, causing neurons to malfunction and die. The Neurodegenerative Diseases Laboratory of Leonard Petrucelli, Ph.D., seeks to develop strategies and therapies to prevent and remove the unwanted buildup of tau.
Understanding other dementia syndromes
Research is progressing on a better understanding of the genetics, pathological development and treatment of people with frontotemporal dementia.
Mayo Clinic researchers in Florida were among the first in the United States to identify novel genetic mutations in some families with frontotemporal dementia. In fact, the three most important dominantly inherited gene mutations that cause frontotemporal dementia were discovered at Mayo Clinic in Florida. This work has led to animal models of the condition and a better understanding of its causes, while research about possible therapies continues.