Aging In Arizona, Part 2: Women At Greater Risk For Neurological Disorders
More Arizonans are living longer because medical advances in heart disease, cancer and diabetes keep their bodies going. But what about their brains? In our five-part series, Aging In Arizona, we explore what researchers are learning about the aging brain, the risks of developing dementia and latest treatments for it.
More women than men are stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s not simply because women live longer than men — on average more than four years. Research is looking into genetic factors and whether hormonal milestones such as puberty, pregnancy and the onset of menopause are triggers.
The University of Arizona has made brain research one of its focus areas. It’s drawing from expertise in science, engineering and informatics, or the science of information.
Neuroscientist Roberta Diaz Brinton leads the UA’s new Center for Innovation in Brain Science. Brinton received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Tucson and she researches Alzheimer’s disease, the aging female brain and develops therapies that can regenerate the brain.
The brain science center will be a collaborative effort of experts in a variety of disciplines from across the state.
“We know that Arizona has a large aging population. Our center will be focusing on neurodegenerative diseases of aging. So our focus will really start with what is that aging process that then puts people at risk for development of a neurodegenerative disease," said Brinton.
Brinton said her approach to studying brain diseases is to start with the patient and end in the laboratory, a reversal of the traditional bench to bedside methodology.
Brinton focuses on women, who are affected the most by Alzheimer’s disease. Her theory is that puberty, pregnancy and the time around menopause are reproductive transitions that can affect neural circuits in the brain.
“When we think about reproduction, we typically think of reproductive organs. But it’s the brain that’s controlling reproduction," she said.
The brain controls most everything else in the human body, too, and it needs energy for all that, making it a good starting point for Alzheimer’s research.
“The brain is the most energetically demanding organ of the body. It weighs 2 percent of body weight and uses 20 percent of the body’s fuel, glucose," said Brinton.
Our brain needs that glucose as we listen, learn, and search for information we have already acquired.
“It’s these very energetically demanding functions of the brain that become first evident in Alzheimer’s disease," Brinton said.
Between its onset and full menopause, there is a decline in the brain’s glucose metabolism. Alzheimer’s onset is about 20 years before it is diagnosed, and diagnosis occurs, on average, around age 72. Brinton said that means onset likely coincides with the beginning of menopause.
“Eleven percent of people over age 65 are predicted to develop Alzheimer’s disease. And it is our hypothesis that we can detect the individuals who are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease by studying their glucose metabolism both in the body as well as in the brain.”
Although there is no cure for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, Brinton said she is hopeful.
“Within the next five to 10 years, we should be able to really look at cure. We’re going to be most successful, and have rapid advances and innovations around the prevention space and around the delay space. The curing space is going to be a tougher challenge, but it’s a challenge I think we have the potential to overcome," she said.
Cures and better treatments for Alzheimer's will take the work of scientists in everything from genetics to diseases. That's the idea behind the Arizona Alzheimer's Consortium, which scientists formed in 1998 and fosters collaboration among institutions throughout the state. The consortium produces dozens of studies each year that have examined the molecular mechanisms, risk factors and physiological processes behind what many believe could be a scourge on the oldest and most vulnerable seniors.