The best way to fight Alzheimer’s? Together.

By convening innovative researchers across academia, Brown’s new Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research hopes to accelerate the pace of development for treatments and cures of this devastating disease.

Yu-Wen Alvin Huang
Yu-Wen Alvin Huang (GLF Translational Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry)
Yu-Wen Alvin Huang has made a name for himself with his research on Alzheimer’s disease and aging. But he didn’t start out in the lab. Huang first began his medical career as a neurologist, treating patients suffering from neurodegenerative disorders. It was fulfilling work, but it was also troubling.

“I was frustrated with the lack of therapeutics,” he says. “When I saw my patients, there wasn’t any treatment I could offer. The biggest hurdle for creating effective treatments is that we don’t understand the disease mechanism enough.”

To get that understanding, Huang shifted his focus toward laboratory research and has since innovated stem cell technologies to uncover the molecular and cellular mechanisms of brain function in health and disease. As the GLF Translational Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry, he’s been able to continue that research at Brown. He admits that his techniques are experimental at the moment, but thinks that risk-taking is necessary to make important breakthroughs, particularly where Alzheimer’s disease is concerned.

“I’ve been in the field for a while, and it’s been dominated by theories that have been established for decades,” he says. “There’s been minimal progress, so the field needs to welcome new ideas and new concepts.”

And, he thinks that Brown is the perfect place to do it.

Meeting the urgent need

The numbers are staggering: more than six million people are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, and more than 125 million worldwide are expected to be living with the condition by 2050.

There is currently no cure and no reliable treatment proven to stop the progression of the disease. But there is hope. 

Brown’s new Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research, which launched in April 2021, is supporting experimental techniques, joint projects across departments, and promising clinical trials focused on early detection and effective treatment.

The center integrates existing expertise within the Robert J. and Nancy D. Carney Institute for Brain Science and the University’s Division of Biology and Medicine. Select projects also coordinate with faculty in the School of Public Health to promote community involvement.

“We are getting closer to understanding Alzheimer’s disease, inch by inch,” says Huang. “I think what this center can really do is make better use of all the resources and talents here at Brown. Breakthroughs are not going to happen with just one investigator.”

As a researcher using a human model of Alzheimer’s disease, I look forward to the opportunity to more closely interact with other researchers using different models, biostatisticians, and behavioral and computational scientists to develop a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the disease’s mechanisms.

Hwamee Oh Assistant Professor, Departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences
 
Hwamee Oh

Hwamee Oh—an assistant professor in Brown’s Departments of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences—agrees.
 
“I believe that the establishment of a center for Alzheimer’s research will form synergy among researchers who are more specialized in a specific field,” she says. “As a researcher using a human model of Alzheimer’s disease, I look forward to the opportunity to more closely interact with other researchers using different models, biostatisticians, and behavioral and computational scientists to develop a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the disease’s mechanisms.”

Funding the next great breakthrough

Oh is involved in multiple research projects within the new center, including Developing Novel Cognitive and Neuroimaging Markers of Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease, for which she serves as project lead.

“As a cognitive neuroscientist by training, my laboratory studies how human memory works and why memory, among other things, deteriorates as people get older and does so more severely with Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.

Supported by the National Institute on Aging, the goal of this particular project is to develop more sophisticated cognitive assessments and MRI-based imaging markers of the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s—when changes are happening in the brains of older adults who do not yet show cognitive symptoms. Identifying these markers will enable a non-invasive and more affordable screening test for the disease in its early stages.
 
In addition, Oh is working with colleagues from Neurology and Psychiatry and Human Behavior as part of the U.S. POINTER Study to investigate whether certain lifestyle changes can protect or improve brain function in older adults at risk for cognitive decline.

Work like this within the new center has been made possible by gifts from alumni totalling $30 million. In addition, endowed faculty positions—including Huang’s―and research funding donated throughout the last seven years of the BrownTogether campaign have helped the University assemble the critical mass needed to become an international leader in neurodegeneration research.   

“Federal funding agencies want to support research projects that have shown enough feasibility,” Oh says. “Seed research funds from donors play a significant role in helping investigators experiment with innovative ideas and generate preliminary data to demonstrate the feasibility for a long-term research project.”

Dr. Stephen Salloway talking with two patients in an exam room
Dr. Stephen Salloway (left) has been involved in more than 20 clinical trials of therapies, diagnostic tests, and lifestyle changes with the potential to improve how we deal with Alzheimer's disease.

Connecting the dots from bench to bedside

Although Brown’s Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research is focused primarily on early diagnosis and more effective treatments, the basic research happening there can inform patient care in a number of ways. 

Dr. Stephen Salloway, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Warren Alpert Medical School who also directs the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital in Providence, is involved in more than 20 clinical trials of therapies, diagnostic tests, and lifestyle changes that have the potential to improve how we deal with Alzheimer’s disease. 

“Up until now, someone already had to have memory loss or dementia before we would try to treat them,” Salloway says. “Now, because of advances in brain imaging and genetics, we can tell who’s at risk many years before there is any memory loss.” 

Vincent Mor—professor of health services, policy and practice at Brown’s School of Public Health—who is currently leading a nationwide effort to improve care and quality of life for people living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers agrees that there is a connection between what happens in the laboratory and what happens in the clinic.

“The basic bench science can inform our work through diagnostics,” he says. “This is a complicated process where you have profiles of patient symptoms and histories. What diagnosticians are trying to do through imaging is to put those pieces together and get a coherent picture of the history of the condition.”

With a grant from the National Institute on Aging, Mor and his collaborators are implementing and assessing pilot programs that train health care workers to identify people with dementia and make more effective referrals and care plans. This work can reduce the need for costly second and third diagnostic opinions. It can also help doctors and caregivers better manage logistical and health-related problems that arise.

“Cancer patients experience the same lack of continuity in care that Alzheimer’s patients do,” Mor says. “But the cancer patient doesn’t have the additional disadvantage of having a brain that doesn’t function well or having outbursts of behavior that caregivers have to manage.

“The goal of our work is to meet all of the patients’ needs.