UC Irvine Awarded $14.4 Million Alzheimer’s Research Grant

GAP-Net site, UCI Mind at the University of California Irvine, was awarded an Alzheimer’s research grant by the National Institute of Health

The National Institutes of Health has awarded $14.4 million to the UCI MIND institute at UC Irvine to continue its crucial work in the study of Alzheimer’s disease, for which there remains no cure or prevention.

UCI MIND, formally known as the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, is one of only 32 Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centers around the country funded by the National Institute on Aging, an arm of the NIH. UC Irvine is one of the original half-dozen research centers established by the NIH in the early 1980s to study Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia-related disorders.

The latest NIH funding kicked in on April 1, but was only recently announced by UCI. The grant is an increase over a previous award of about $10 million that UCI MIND received in 2015 as part of a five-year competitive cycle for the NIH awards.

Dr. Joshua Grill, director of UCI MIND since March 2015, called the $14.4 million “an extremely important success for us.”

Dr. Joshua Grill takes questions from the audience while moderating a panel of fellow UCI MIND Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders researchers during a 2017 South Orange County Senior Day in Mission Viejo. UCI MIND was recently awarded a $14.4 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to continue its cutting edge Alzheimer’s and related-dementia research. Grill is the director of UCI MIND. (Photo by Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

Money awarded by the NIH, Grill said, “is the lifeblood of our center.”

He added: “It’s continued funding for what really is a novel and important endeavor for our organization, our campus, and, I would argue, for Orange County.”

While its track record of success in eight NIH funding cycles and its reputation of groundbreaking research provided a certain level of confidence as UCI MIND prepared its grant application with input from staff and researchers across the campus, Grill said the research center did not allow itself to get cocky about an award.

“Until you have it,” he said, “you can’t rest too easy.”

Vital research

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease and the most common form of dementia.

Along with causing a decline in memory, cognitive ability and behavior, Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death among adults in the United States. More than 5 million Americans 65 and older currently live with the disease – a number that is expected to triple by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

The cost to the healthcare system is projected to grow from $305 billion to $1 trillion.

Locally, dementia hits even harder at an aging population: It is the third leading cause of death in Orange County, behind heart disease and cancer, according to statistics compiled from public records by the Orange County Healthier Together initiative.

And, with senior citizens representing the only demographic segment projected to grow in the county, about 84,000 Orange County residents currently are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. That number represents more Alzheimer’s patients than in 26 states, Grill said.

“It is literally a bigger problem here than it is in most places in the U.S.”

Money is a magnet

The NIH grant funds 10 collaborative research cores. Each has its own focus and is led by a UCI faculty member.

Some examples: The Clinical Core, led by Dr. David Sultzer, focuses on clinical trials of new treatments. The Biomarker Core uses the latest neuroimaging techniques to study the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease, under the leadership of Dr. Craig Stark. And Dr. Elizabeth Head, who has studied Alzheimer’s disease and brain aging in people with Down syndrome, recently returned to UCI after a stint at the University of Kentucky to lead the Research and Education Core.

Status as one of the country’s Alzheimer Disease Research Centers and a recipient of the NIH grants works hand-in-hand with private philanthropy and other community support for UCI MIND.

“Part of the criteria of being in this exclusive club, is that others trust in your scientific know-how and invest in you,” Grill said.

One high-profile example of private funding that helps expand the work of UCI MIND: In January, former California First Lady Maria Shriver announced another $100,000 in seed grant money from her Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement to study the causes of gender disparity in a disease that affects twice as many women as men. Shriver, who lost her father to Alzheimer’s disease, heads up the state’s Alzheimer’s Prevention and Preparedness Task Force formed in 2019.

Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement has had a partnership with UCI MIND since 2017 to support research into the role of sex and gender in Alzheimer’s disease. A pilot study funded by that partnership directly led to a $1.9 million NIH grant several months ago for UCI MIND researchers to continue exploring the role of microglia, the brain’s primary immune cells.

Beyond the financial support, UCI MIND has been highly successful in engaging individuals to become part of the Alzheimer’s research going on around UCI, from joining clinical trials to contributing to a brain bank. (An autopsy and study of brain tissue provides a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Grill said, but PET scans that have been approved in recent years by the Federal Drug Administration allow identification of amyloid plaque and tangles in the brain – the chief earmarks that Alzheimer’s is present.)

About 4,250 people have signed up to be contacted for possible inclusion in a variety of studies and activities, Grill said.

“Our goal is to have a local database of people who are interested in not just helping Alzheimer’s researchers at UCI but other invesigators.”

Learn more

To find out about Alzheimer’s and dementia-related clinical research studies at UC Irvine, go to the UCI Consent-2-Contact (C2C) Registry.

Originally posted by The Orange County Register on July 13, 2020.

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