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Hispanic Neuro Disease Landscape Mapped in New Study

Brittany Dugger

Brittany Dugger (University of California in Davis)

16 Aug. 2019. A new project examines brain pathologies leading to development of Alzheimer’s disease in Americans of Hispanic descent, a group largely ignored in neuroscience. The five-year effort by researchers at University of California in Davis and other institutions, is funded by a $3.8 million award from National Institute on Aging, part of National Institutes of Health.

A team led by pathology professor Brittany Dugger at the UC-Davis medical school is seeking to better define brain conditions and disorders in Hispanic-Americans, the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S., to provide insights for detecting and treating disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. The university cites data showing Americans of Hispanic descent are more likely to suffer diseases in the brain affecting blood vessels, such as stroke, and are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than non-Hispanic whites in the U.S.

Yet, relatively little is known about degenerative diseases in the brain among people in this ethnic group. “There is little information on the pathology of dementia affecting people from minority groups, especially for individuals of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent,” says Dugger in a university statement. She notes that “this grant will allow us to build on our expertise in dementia research to gain better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease in these communities and provide insights to improve prevention and treatment.”

To fill this gap, Dugger and colleagues plan to assemble data on neurodegenerative diseases among American Hispanics. The data are expected to show the presence, location, and density of conditions related to Alzheimer’s disease, such as amyloid plaque and tau-protein build-ups on nerve cells, as well as indicators of stroke and other blood-vessel disorders in the brain.

The team plans to study donated postmortem samples of brain tissue from 100 people of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent provided by Alzheimer’s disease research centers at UC-Davis, UC-San Diego, and Columbia University in New York. Data from these samples will then be compared to comparable brain tissue samples from 200 non-Hispanic white individuals.

Further analysis will investigate clinical, genetic, and demographic factors affecting Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The findings are expected to highlight variables such as status of an individual’s apolipoprotein E or APOE gene where some variations are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, clinical history of stroke, hypertension, or diabetes, and demographic variables including sex and education.

Dugger adds, “[W]e will look at the co-presence of cerebrovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. For people who had strokes, we would like to know, where did these strokes happen? When did they happen? How big they were? Did the patient have other vessel pathologies? How healthy do these vessels look?”

The UC-Davis team plans to partner with Michael Keiser at UC-San Francisco to apply machine learning algorithms for preparing neuropathology profiles and pinpointing the underlying factors affecting development of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in this population. The findings are expected to help devise better diagnostic, treatment, and prevention strategies, including precision medicine for brain disorders among Hispanic Americans.

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