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Why This New $40.5 Million Center Could Mean Big Things for Alzheimer’s Research

series of brain scans

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Key Takeaways

  • The Allen Institute for Brain Science received a $40.5 million grant to study Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Researchers hope to better understand the origins of the disease.
  • Previous research based on a popular Alzheimer’s hypothesis has failed, and the field has struggled to move forward.

A new collaborative center in Seattle is attempting to go back to the basics of Alzheimer’s research in an effort to better understand the disease.

The center, which was created at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is being funded for five years with a $40.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA) of the National Institutes of Health, according to a press release. The funding will also support projects based at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute.

The hope, the Allen Center says, is to stop Alzheimer’s disease by better understanding how it starts.

What Is Alzheimer's?

Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. Eventually, people with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to carry out even simple tasks. Most people with Alzheimer’s first develop symptoms in their mid-60s. About 5.5 million Americans may have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

What We Know About Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s has been studied since 1906, when Dr. Alois Alzheimer noticed changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. At the time, he examined her brain and found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles), the NIA says. The plaques and tangles are considered some of the hallmarks of the disease, along with the loss of connections between nerve cells called neurons, which transmit messages between different parts of the brain.

While plaques, tangles, and a loss of connections between nerve cells are markers of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers still don’t totally understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people.

What Will the New Center Do?

Researchers at the Allen Center will build high-resolution maps of Alzheimer’s patients’ brains and identify how their neurons and other brain cells are different from those of healthy people. By comparing brain cells across patients with different stages of the disease, researchers hope to begin to be able to find how and where Alzheimer’s starts.

The researchers will use postmortem brain tissue from participants who consent to donate their brains to science after death. They plan to analyze cells from different brain regions from about 100 people, including those with normal brain function and little to no signs of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain to those with late-stage Alzheimer’s dementia.

Researchers hope to gain new insights into why some people have a natural resistance to developing plaques, as well as why some people develop plaques but never develop dementia. After that, they're aiming to find new brain cells to target with therapy.

What Does This Mean for Alzheimer’s Research as a Whole?

Hopefully, a lot, Sarah C. McEwen, PhD, director of research and programming at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, tells Verywell. For the past two decades, Alzheimer’s researchers have focused on the amyloid hypothesis, which is based on the theory that Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the accumulation and deposit of beta-amyloids (aggregates of protein), she explains.

“That’s the target we’ve been going after with therapies, and it’s failed—miserably,” McEwen, who is also an associate professor of translational neurosciences and neurotherapeutics, says. “Every single trial has failed. Amyloid is not the silver bullet target that researchers once thought it was.”

McEwen says it’s “very difficult” because Alzheimer’s disease is “such a complex and multifactorial process” and there is a long progression of the disease.

“Now, researchers are going back further in the timeline and thinking about what’s happening in earlier stages of the disease," McEwen says. "That’s where we should be looking.”

Right now, there are no effective therapies that can stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’re trying to cure a disease of a complex system we fundamentally don’t understand,” Ed Lein, PhD, senior investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and lead investigator of the new center, says in the press release. “What’s really needed is to take a fresh look at the basic progression of the disease across the brain, and we now have high-resolution cellular and molecular technologies in place to do just that.” 

The $40.5 million funding is crucial here, Amit Sachdev, MD, medical director in the division of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells Verywell.

"Major investments in neurology research are hard to find," Sachdey says. "Neurologic diseases are often slow-moving and hard to figure out. It can be hard to recruit providers to a field where many patients don’t improve as robustly as we would like."

A big feature of the center is that its work will be openly available to the scientific community.

“That is incredibly valuable,” McEwen says. “There is innovation through collaboration. There is no way we’re going to be able to do this through a single site. Collaboration is huge.”

Sachdev agrees.

"A collaborative center of this nature has the potential to help move an entire field forward," he says.

What This Means For You

Alzheimer’s disease impacts millions of Americans. By better understanding the basics of the disease, researchers hope to be able to create more effective therapies in the future to help halt and control its progression.

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  1. NIH National Institute on Aging. Alzheimer's disease fact sheet. Updated May 22, 2019.

  2. NIH National Institute on Aging. What is Alzheimer's disease? Updated May 16, 2017.

  3. Allen Institute for Brain Science. Seattle researchers team up to build hi-res brain map of Alzheimer's disease: $40.5M NIH-funded project aims to pinpoint cells at the root of the progressive brain disease and home in on new therapeutic targets. Updated June 25, 2020.