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Archive for Sunday, January 7, 2001

BRAINS donate time to Alzheimer’s research

Healthy volunteers offer control group to scientists

January 7, 2001

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— Needed: a few good brains.

Or BRAINS, to be exact Biologically Resilient Adults in Neurological Studies.

Volunteers in the University of Kentucky's BRAIN program could help researchers gain much-needed insight into the cause and treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

The 11-year-old program compares data on the brains of Alzheimer's patients with those of normal patients to document differences and verify research results.

"We can study Alzheimer's brains from now till next year. But if we can't study the brains of people who don't have Alzheimer's disease a control group for comparison, it's not very worthwhile," said David Wekstein, associate director of the school's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.

The center recruits healthy people 60 and older who agree to annual neurological and physical tests and then donate their brains for study when they die. Researchers are following more than 400 people and are looking for about 200 more in central Kentucky.

More than 4 million Americans and more than 12 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's, which to date has no known cause or cure.

It afflicts mainly the elderly, robbing them of their memories and ability to care for themselves, eventually killing them. The disease, characterized by the degeneration of brain cells, is the most common form of dementia in the elderly.

The Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, part of Sanders-Brown and one of a handful of federally funded and designated programs, won a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging in May to continue its work.

Gretchen and Charlie Black signed up five years ago.

"We feel like we're a part of something big and a part of something special," said Gretchen Black, 65. "I have to be honest. I know that I am at risk because my parents and my grandmother all suffered from the disease. At least I know they'll be watching me in case I start to fall apart.

"I have faith in the Lord, but at the same time it is frightening to think that I may someday go through some of the same things my parents did. It's the most devastating thing you can possibly go through. This at least gives me some sense of control like I'm doing something that not only could help me but others facing the same struggle."

Charlie Black, 72, said he enjoys the memory and physical dexterity exercises.

"They'll read you a story and then ask you questions for comprehension. There's word associations, connect-the-dots exercises, things to test your coordination," he said.

The exercises, while simple, help reveal how well the brain functions as a person ages.

"This is a remarkable group of people who have made a tremendous sacrifice in the interest of science," said Gail Cohen, a clinical research assistant at the Sanders-Brown Center. "They truly understand how important this research is. They really get it. And when we do determine a cause or discover new ways to treat people suffering from the disease, these people will have played an important role in that."

Among other things, researchers are looking at people who seemed healthy but whose brains revealed the same abnormalities as those in people with Alzheimer's.

"The question becomes how is it possible for two people to have the same pathology but one be able to function normally and the other suffer from Alzheimer's. We don't yet have an answer," Wekstein said.

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