Every 4 seconds another person in the world develops Alzheimer’s disease, a statistic released by the World Health Organization in its 2012 report, Dementia, A Public Health Priority, on April 11 and highlighted by Dr. Frank LaFerla, Director of the UC Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND), that same evening in his presentation, Researching Ways to Make Memories Last A Lifetime, at the 18th UCI Distinguished Lecture Series on Brain, Learning and Memory, co-hosted by the UCI Center for Neurobiology, Learning and Memory and UCI MIND.
Speaking to an audience of more than 500, Dr. LaFerla provided an overview of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), noting the need to stop the exponential growth in the number of people with AD or a related dementia expected in the coming decades. Outlining the progression of AD from Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) to severe AD, Dr. LaFerla gave the analogy that current treatments available for mild, moderate and severe dementia are much like throwing a bucket of water on a home fully engulfed in fire. In other words, by the time today’s patients receive treatment, so much of the brain has been destroyed by senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles – the hallmark signs of AD – that available medications have minimal impact. A major goal of UCI MIND, and the field of AD as a whole, is to identify the disease pre-clinically and initiate treatment early in order to slow or even prevent the development of a full-blown dementia.
Bringing hope to the audience, Dr. LaFerla described groundbreaking research on stem-cell therapies from his laboratory. Avoiding the ethical challenges inherent in the use of embryonic stem cells, Dr. LaFerla and his colleagues have conducted a series of studies examining the use neuronal stem cells in a mouse model of AD. Remarkably, neuronal stem cells injected into the brains of mice with AD significantly increased synaptic connections. And when the injected neuronal stem cells were programmed to express brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), they actually helped to clear the toxic Aβ protein from the brains of the mice with AD. Translating this research to the human level is complicated, Dr. LaFerla cautioned, involving multiple additional animal studies to address issues such as immunosuppression. In the immediate future, UCI MIND will focus on the development of induced pluripotent stem cells, that is, the process of developing or “inducing” embryonic-like pluripotent stem cells from human skin cells. Neuronal cells evolved from these induced pluripotent stem cells will first be tested in animal models before being taken to the human level. In an effort expected to take five years, UCI MIND intends to move forward stem cell research to the point of being able to apply for testing in humans. Currently funding is being sought for this critical effort to develop therapies that could effectively slow and prevent AD when applied early.
UCI MIND is home to one of 29 federally funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers (ADRC), including, as Dr. LaFerla described, a Clinical Core, a Neuropathology Core, an Education Core, and a Data Management and Statistics Core. Within its ADRC, UCI MIND has Memory Assessment and
Research Center which actively seeks individuals with mild memory loss for participation in ongoing research studies. To participate in ongoing research efforts or learn more about UCI MIND, call (949) 824-2382.