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Alzheimer’s researchers discuss latest developments during town hall

a woman in a cream and blue dress speaks behind a podium in a conference room
Claire Sexton shares the latest in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia science during a Research Town Hall hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter at the Handlery Hotel San Diego on Aug. 26, 2022. Sexton is senior director of scientific programs and research at the national Alzheimer’s Association. (Lauren J. Mapp / The San Diego Union-Tribune)
(Lauren J. Mapp / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Attendees learned the latest in dementia research during a public event Thursday

As dementia funding has ramped up in recent years, the public availability of blood tests to detect early biomarkers of disease, interventions to decrease risk and a path to effective pharmaceutical drugs have grown closer.

That was the message shared with nearly 100 people gathered in a Hotel Circle conference room — and an additional 250 online viewers — during Thursday’s Alzheimer’s disease Research Town Hall.

Put on each year by the Alzheimer’s Association San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter, organizers of the event sought to educate the public about the latest in dementia research, as well as the local and national nonprofit’s efforts in the field.

The Alzheimer’s Association reports it has funded $310 million in active research, spread among 950 projects in 48 countries around the world. The nonprofit has provided $14 million for current research studies in San Diego County alone.

“Through accelerating global research, it’s driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support,” said Rema Raman, the local board chair.

The town hall builds on the national branch of the nonprofit’s efforts to fund research about Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementia. Earlier this month, the organization held its annual Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego, a symposium where researchers shared their studies and efforts to address the needs of dementia patients.

Thursday’s town hall was led by keynote speaker Claire Sexton, senior director of scientific programs and research at the national Alzheimer’s Association, who shared an overview of the research reported during that conference.

One Brazilian study found that consuming ultra-processed foods as 20 percent of one’s overall diet was associated with a faster decline in global cognitive scores by 28 percent. A study from New York University published last year found that in fiscal 2017, ultra-processed foods like frozen pizzas, soda and breakfast cereal made up 57 percent of Americans’ diets on average — up from 53.5 percent in fiscal 2001.

“There’s a huge opportunity there for change and to be looking at these types of factors, which could be helping reduce risk going forward,” Sexton said.

Following Sexton’s speech, the audience heard research details from three local scientists whose studies were supported by grant funding from the nonprofit.

UC San Diego’s Amy Jak spoke of her research looking at the connections between activity levels and cognition in at-risk adults, and how combining behavioral interventions can impact outcomes for those diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment.

Dr. Anne Hiniker, another researcher from UC San Diego, discussed how studying human brain tissue helps map the impact of Alzheimer’s compared with progressive supranuclear palsy, which like Alzheimer’s, is another neurodegenerative condition also associated with tau protein clumps.

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies’ Isabel Salas discussed her research on rat brain tissue as an initial step into seeing how dementia impacts the brain’s astrocytes — large star-shaped cells that hold nerve cells in place.

The speakers during the town hall also reiterated the importance of more people volunteering for research studies, adding that this is especially important for people of color, who are disproportionately affected by dementia, less likely to receive early diagnoses and often underrepresented in scientific research. People interested in participating in dementia research can connect to studies through the nonprofit’s online TrialMatch platform.

Janet Hamada Kelley, the local chapter’s executive director, said that events like the town hall are held to show continued support of those living with dementia and their family caregivers, while also giving them some hope for the future.

“While Alzheimer’s and other dementias are a devastating disease, it was heartening to see the audience so interested and focused on the presentation,” she said.

Video and slides from the Research Town Hall will be made available online next week. For more information about the local Alzheimer’s Association chapter, visit alz.org/sandiego or call (619) 678-8322.


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