The University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging is looking for two groups of patients to help learn more about Alzheimer's disease.
One study will examine how a new drug can supplement existing treatment; the other focuses on Down syndrome and Alzheimer's.
The first study is looking at how the drug Dimebon can help Alzheimer's patients already taking Aricept.
Because Alzheimer's is a complex disease, patients sometimes need multiple drugs to address their symptoms, said Dr. Gregory Jicha, assistant professor of neurology at the UK College of Medicine. Aricept is one of the most widely prescribed Alzheimer's drugs in the country.
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Dimebon is thought to improve the mitochondrial function in brain cells, preventing damage. Cell parts called mitochondria are critical to brain function because they are the primary source of cells' energy.
Aricept appears to enhance the brain's concentration of acetylcholine, an enzyme crucial to memory and learning, he said.
Jicha said a good candidate for this study would have relatively mild symptoms. "In the early stage of the disease people can understand what the trial means and participate in the decision to help find better medicine and potential cures for Alzheimer's," he said.
The UK effort is part of an international project that will evaluate more than 1,000 patients, including at least a dozen at UK.
Another new research project looks at the connection between Down syndrome and Alzheimer's. The $2.4 million, five-year study will look at how Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease may affect a person's memory and thinking as they get older, said Dr. Elizabeth Head, who will lead the study.
The study will recruit and follow 40 people older than 35 with Down syndrome. In addition, 10 to 12 people with Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease will be recruited for a single research session.
The Down syndrome patients without Alzheimer's will be tested every six months.
Head said the life expectancy of Down syndrome patients has increased dramatically over the years but the services they need as they age have not kept up. "There is really not a whole lot out there for them," she said. "They are a little underserved."
At the same time, she said, Down syndrome patients offer a unique opportunity to study Alzheimer's. The chromosomal abnormality that creates Down syndrome also results in the overproduction of the protein that causes Alzheimer's.
"They make a protein that causes Alzheimer's disease. They are making too much of it from birth," she said.
Most middle-age Down syndrome patients have full-blown Alzheimer's disease in their brain but not all of them develop dementia, she said. Understanding how they continue to function could be key to helping others with Alzheimer's, she said.
More than 400,000 people in the United States have Down syndrome. Overall, 50 percent of people with Down syndrome age 55 and older may have Alzheimer's disease.
Overall, some 5.3 million in the United States have Alzheimer's. According to the Alzheimer's Association that number is expected to increase dramatically as the baby boomer generation continues to age.
Jicha said it's possible if a patient isn't right for one of these studies, several more are currently underway that might be a better fit.
"We always have a variety of opportunities," he said. "Every study has a different number demands."
"We are trying to build an army to fight Alzheimer's," he said. "That army doesn't just include doctors and researchers but battalions of patients willing to pick up these new weapons to join the fight."