A race against time
Flipping the hourglass on Alzheimer's disease
The warmth of a parent’s smile, the glow of a significant other on their wedding day, the fiery sunset over the sea during a blissful vacation: Treasured memories that we carefully clutch like grains of sand to keep forever. As we age, the grains pile in our palms, but only a few trickle out between our fingers. For people living with Alzheimer’s disease, this trickle eventually turns into a cascade, where memories flow freely through their grasp no matter how desperately they grip.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, typically takes root decades before the first symptoms appear. Like other neurodegenerative conditions, it is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys neurons.
"People with dementia may not even recognize they have a problem," says Paul E. Schulz, MD, a neurologist with UTHealth Houston Neurosciences. “By the time symptoms like memory loss appear, the brain may have already suffered critical damage.”
Schulz, who leads the Neurocognitive Disorders Center at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, recalls a patient in his 60s who was brought in for cognitive evaluation by his wife.
During the assessment, the man crossed his arms and furrowed his brow, insisting nothing was wrong. Meanwhile, his wife described how his uncharacteristic outbursts and rude comments had transformed him from husband to stranger.
"Through testing, we found that this patient’s gradual, yet significant, shifts in mood and behavior were the result of dementia. For other patients, dementia can also prompt changes in cognition like memory loss and increased difficulty with daily activities,” explains Schulz.
Making the right diagnosis early on can ensure that patients receive prompt treatments that could improve quality of life or slow the progression of disease. At the Neurocognitive Disorders Center, Schulz and his team use advanced diagnostic tools including brain MRIs, blood tests, and PET scans to identify abnormal protein buildups in the brain that may signify different types of dementia.
"Time is the most precious gift that earlier diagnoses and better treatments can provide,” says Schulz. “Above all, we hope to offer families more time to create and cherish memories together.”
Through the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign, the gift of philanthropy has empowered Schulz and his team to test therapies, such as reducing the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain, offering families more time together.
Since the launch of the campaign, more than 70 donors—including Shelaghmichael Brown and Joan and Stanford Alexander—have helped advance Schulz’s immediate scientific needs, like purchasing equipment and supporting research personnel and clinical trials. Additionally, the Rick McCord Professorship in Neurology and the Umphrey Family Professorship in Neurodegenerative Diseases provide dependable resources that allow Schulz to sustain ongoing studies and launch new projects.
Philanthropy also fuels discovery science, which helps elucidate the underpinnings of how the brain operates. Claudio Soto, PhD, and his team at The George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell Center for Research in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders at McGovern Medical School are changing the way we understand the brain by studying brain models in the laboratory.
"We can generate stem cells and program them to become brain cells,” says Soto. “Using this method, we grow living brain-like organelles in preclinical models that we can use to see how Alzheimer’s disease progresses.”
While most clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease focus on removing harmful proteins in the brain, stem cells may also provide a way to regenerate neurons and restore function to patients.
"Because parts of the brain are already damaged by the time people with Alzheimer’s disease experience symptoms, there is a tremendous need for regenerative therapies,” Soto explains. “We are studying whether we can restore lost brain cells by replacing them with the brain tissues we generate from stem cells.”
Philanthropic support to the Many Faces. One Mission. campaign has served as a catalyst for this discovery science research. Donors to the Mitchell Center have provided seed funding to pursue breakthroughs like stem cell therapies, which could revolutionize the way we understand and treat neurodegenerative diseases. Additionally, the Huffington Foundation made a significant commitment to establish the Huffington Foundation Distinguished Chair in Neurology, which has enabled Soto and his team to launch high-impact research projects that advance brain health.
“Different neurodegenerative diseases often present similar problems in the brain,” says Soto. “Philanthropy ensures we have the resources to find the links between these disorders and translate our discoveries into lifesaving solutions. It’s only a matter of time before we’re able to eradicate these devastating diseases."