New research at Kansas University may have changed our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder that plagues an estimated 53,000 Kansans.
When KU assistant professor of psychology David Johnson conducted a study comparing the decline of different kinds of memory, he found that Alzheimer’s affects certain areas of the brain much earlier than previously thought.
“We understand now that it is a whole brain disorder,” Johnson said.
The researchers saw that some types of memory declined faster than those normally used in diagnosis of the disease.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is usually made on the basis of verbal and working memory, but Johnson found that visual-spatial memory declined nearly three years before study participants were diagnosed.
“Earlier and earlier, we understand when Alzheimer’s affects people in the pre-clinical stage,” Johnson said.
Despite this, Johnson wants to stress that this doesn’t necessarily mean doctors can diagnose the disease earlier.
“We don’t change when we can diagnose, but we understand what pre-Alzheimer’s looks like,” Johnson said.
What he hopes is that this better understanding might lead to new ways to treat the disease.
By the time doctors diagnose a patient, the disease has done significant damage to the person’s mental state. But knowing what a pre-clinical Alzheimer’s brain looks like poses the possibility of treatments.
“If we understand that it affects the brain earlier, we might tailor treatment and the development of treatments toward that stage,” Johnson said. “We have a better chance of arresting the disorder.”
Johnson’s work makes up just one small part of the Alzheimer’s studies performed at KU.
At Kansas University Medical Center’s Alzheimer and Memory Program, multiple clinical studies constantly work at reaching a better understanding of the disease, ranging from drug testing to brain imaging work.
“People that get involved in clinical trials, there’s always a chance they’ll be part of the group that finds something that works,” said Karen Clond, a program coordinator at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Heart of America chapter in Prairie Village.
People who want to participate in any of the program’s clinical research can apply on KUMC’s Web site.
Johnson said that in addition to the medical research, Lawrence offers world-class Alzheimer’s and dementia care.
Ann Sibinski, assistant director of nursing for the Arbor Memory Care at Brandon Woods, said she and fellow staffers primarily care for late-stage patients, when it has become unsafe for them to stay at home.
Sibinski said Arbor Memory Care — one of the several care homes in Lawrence that accepts Alzheimer’s patients — emphasize what they call resident-directed care, focusing on social interactions between residents and with the staff, to improve the quality of life for the residents and provide them with greater safety.
Lawrence has quickly become an influential part of the learning process toward caring for and understanding this debilitating disease, and work such as Johnson’s goes a long way toward that end.
“If there’s any such thing as a good place to be for this, this is it,” Clond said.