UW Alzheimer’s Disease Researchers Make Strong Showing at 2017 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference

Thirty-six scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented research at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, United Kingdom, joining nearly 6,000 attendees from around the globe. The conference, which occurred on July 16-20, 2017, is the world’s largest meeting dedicated to the scientific study of dementia.

Kimberly Mueller, MS, associate researcher, Geriatrics and Gerontology and Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, described AAIC as an overwhelmingly positive experience, and noted the prominence of speech analysis and biomarker studies. “he conversations and sessions at AAIC made me even more grateful for the rich and vast resources that our WAI and ADRC participants have provided us. I am excited to continue this work, and to make good use of our wealth of resources at UW Madison,” she said.

Four studies led by UW-Madison investigators were selected by conference organizers to be highlighted during news briefings—more than any other institution in the world. Each study used data gleaned from the long-running Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), which has been following 1,500 participants, many of them adult children of people with Alzheimer’s disease, who volunteer for regular tests of cognitive skills, brain scans, cerebral spinal fluid draws and other testing.

By applying a range of innovative approaches, UW-Madison researchers identified hearing loss, highly stressful life events, speech and the socioeconomic conditions of neighborhoods as possible risk factors for cognitive decline.

Amy Kind, MD, PhD, associate professor, Geriatrics and Gerontology, and her research group found that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood – defined as a neighborhood challenged by poverty, low education, unemployment and substandard housing – may account for some of the observed differences in Alzheimer’s disease risk among people of different racial backgrounds and income levels. The results of this study could help target dementia-focused intervention and research programs to the areas that will be helped most. The research was highlighted by the Washington PostMedscape, and MedicalResearch among other outlets.

Megan Zuelsdorff, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the Health Disparities Research Scholarprogram at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, described research on lifetime stressful events and racial disparities in cognitive health. Results showed African Americans experienced over 60 percent more stressful events than whites over their lifetimes, and these experiences were one of the strongest predictors of poorer memory and thinking skills in older age. In African Americans, each stressful event was equivalent to approximately four years of cognitive aging. Stressful events included experiences such as growing up with a parent who abused alcohol or drugs, being fired from a job, the death of a child, and experiencing combat. Dr. Zuelsorff’s mentors include Ozioma Okonkwo, PhD, assistant professor, Geriatrics and Gerontology. Media coverage of Dr. Zuelsdorff’s study included articles by NPR, Associated Press, Fox Business and Wisconsin Public Radio, among others.

Taylor Fields, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Training Program, and her group in the Binaural Hearing and Speech Lab directed by Ruth Litovsky, PhD, professor, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, looked at the potential correlation between hearing loss and mild cognitive impairment. Researchers analyzed data from five years of clinical tests of cognitive function in order to track volunteers’ progression to mild cognitive impairment. Volunteers who self-reported being diagnosed with a hearing loss at the beginning of the study were more likely to perform more poorly on future cognitive tests and were also over twice as likely to be characterized as having mild cognitive impairment. This study suggests that hearing loss could be an early indicator of worsening cognitive performance in older adults, and that identifying and treating hearing loss could have value for interventions aimed at reducing the risk of cognitive decline. Additional Department of Medicine mentors for the study included Dr. Okonkwo and Sterling Johnson, PhD, professor, Geriatrics and Gerontology. Several press outlets covered the story including the Washington Post and The Guardian.

Kimberly Mueller, MS, associate researcher, Geriatrics and Gerontology and Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, and her group looked at changes in everyday speech. The research showed that subtle changes in everyday speech, such as the use of short sentences, more pronouns and pauses like “um” and “ah,” correlated with a preclinical condition (early mild cognitive impairment, or eMCI). Further studies are needed, but the results of this research indicate that speech analysis may be a valuable cognitive marker to add to clinical assessments of cognitive function in the future. Ms. Mueller said, “Researchers from Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, who are conducting similar studies of spontaneous speech, were impressed with the scope of our speech work with respect to number of participants, the way we captured measures, and the longitudinal analyses.” Dr. Johnson also mentored this study, and the senior author was Lyn Turkstra, PhD, professor, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Media coverage included the Associated Press and USA Today.

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