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North Hills Monthly

Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Looking for Ways to Treat Nonreversible Brain Disorders

Apr 30, 2016 12:06PM ● By Jill Cueni Cohen

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and one in three senior citizens dies from it or another form of dementia, according to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association. One in nine people age 65 and older is affected. Classified by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) as a nonreversible brain disorder that develops over a period of years, Alzheimer’s gradually leads to behavior and personality changes, a decline in cognitive abilities such as decision-making and language skills, and problems recognizing family and friends. 

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s or other dementia diseases, Pittsburghers are fortunate to be in close proximity to the Alzheimer Disease Research Center (ADRC) at the University of Pittsburgh, which is leading the race to learn more about, treat and ultimately cure Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders including Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia. Established in 1985 by a grant from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), the ADRC performs and coordinates Alzheimer’s-related clinical and research activities and is a core provider of resources to related national and regional organizations. The center’s overall objective is to study changes that happen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients with the aim of improving the reliability of diagnosis and developing effective treatment strategies.

Do you fear that you or a loved one might have Alzheimer’s? Onset of the disease may at first be mistaken for the kinds of memory changes that are sometimes associated with normal aging; however, Alzheimer’s symptoms are actually related to the loss of connections between certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. 

Headed up by co-directors Oscar Lopez, MD, and William Klunk, MD, PhD, both leading experts in the early detection of Alzheimer’s, the ADRC conducts outpatient evaluations. Participants and their families receive state-of-the-art diagnostic assessments while contributing to the study of Alzheimer’s. These evaluations typically take up to four hours to complete and include medical, neurological, psychiatric, social and cognitive assessments. 

“Those seeking an evaluation must be accompanied by an informant or caregiver who can answer detailed questions about their memory, thinking skills and behavior,” explained MaryAnn Oakley, Outreach, Recruitment and Education coordinator, adding that the ADRC also needs healthy volunteers to study as control subjects for research. “Those determined to be suffering from Alzheimer’s will then be informed of treatment options and the possibility of participation in additional research, including medication trials and other types of research studies. Education and counseling are also provided.”

Caregivers, family members and friends of dementia patients can also receive emotional, educational, and social support from a group sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh’s Alzheimer Outreach Center. The Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Group meets from 6-7:30 p.m. on the last Tuesday of each month at the Alzheimer Outreach Center located at the Hill House, 1835 Centre Avenue in Pittsburgh. 

After their deaths, participants of the ADRC can donate their brains to research. In addition to the scientific contribution, brain donation is helpful for families because it confirms the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. “An autopsy could also eliminate unnecessary concern or wondering each time your family medical history is discussed,” Oakley said. “Many families find that getting such diagnostic confirmation provides closure or resolution to the caregiving experience.” 

A gene known as APOE-4 has been discovered to increase a person’s risk of developing the disease and is also associated with an earlier age of disease onset. However, carrying this gene does not mean that a person will definitely develop Alzheimer’s disease, and some people with no APOE-4 may also develop the disease.

Research suggests that genetics is not the only way people develop Alzheimer’s disease. A relationship exists between cognitive decline and vascular conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and metabolic conditions such as obesity and diabetes. According to Lopez, ongoing research will help researchers understand whether and how reducing risk factors for these conditions may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Lopez is currently conducting studies using MRI, FDG-PET, Pittsburgh Compound B (PiB), and cardiovascular technologies to better understand whether abnormalities in the relationship between the “heart,” and brain structure and function may predict cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s disease in cognitively normal elderly individuals. The ADRC is also a site of a large clinical trial that is being conducted to test therapies that might prevent, or at least delay, the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in cognitively normal people who may be at risk as evidenced by a PET scan of the brain.

Research has already established a correlation between healthy aging and diet, physical activity, social engagement and mentally stimulating pursuits. Clinical trials are testing whether these factors may also help reduce risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

For more information, visit ADRC at