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Researcher receives $8m to expand Alzheimer’s study

A Boston scientist poised to launch a pioneering Alzheimer’s prevention study was awarded an $8 million grant Thursday to expand the research and further explore potential causes of cognitive decline in the mind-robbing disease.

Dr. Reisa Sperling, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and an Alzheimer’s specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, received the Alzheimer’s Association grant, the largest such research award the group has ever given, the association said.

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The goal of the new money is to “jump-start the development of new detection methods, treatments, and prevention strategies for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias,” Maria Carrillo, the association’s vice president of medical and scientific relations, said in a statement.

In the next few months, Sperling and her colleagues are preparing to launch a study called A4, which will follow 1,000 adults, ages 65 to 85, who have abnormal proteins, known as amyloid plaques, revealed by brain scans, and who are exhibiting subtle cognitive problems that are typically reported in people years before they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

The study will give half of the participants a drug designed to clear amyloid plaques from their brains, and the others a placebo, while researchers will track the rate of cognitive decline in both groups. The goal is to determine whether this potential Alzheimer’s drug treatment, which blocks amyloid proteins from building up in the brain, can slow or prevent Alzheimer’s in people who do not yet have memory and thinking problems.

The new grant money will be used to launch a companion study, called LEARN, to determine whether there may be reasons for the memory and related problems associated with Alzheimer’s, other than the buildup of abnormal amyloid plaques, the association said.

Researchers will select an additional 500 participants from the pool of volunteers who aren’t selected for the A4 trial, and scan their brains to see whether they have a buildup of another protein, known as tau, which form tangles in the brain and are a hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

The LEARN study will also run for three years, and participants will undergo identical memory, blood, and other testing as those in the A4 study, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Researchers will study these participants, who do not have an abnormal buildup of amyloid in their brains, to see what other biological changes may be related to their cognitive decline, including possible later build-up of amyloid plaques.

Sperling said the new grant money will also help researchers “test the tests” they are developing for their A4 study to measure the subtle memory and thinking changes people undergo in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The A4 study is expected to begin enrolling participants in the next few months at over 60 sites in the U.S., including Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Kay Lazar can be reached at Kay.Lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.
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