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Dallas Researcher Aims to Unlock Mysteries of Alzheimer’s Disease
10/28/2009

DALLAS — Rong Zhang, Ph.D., a researcher at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, has been awarded a four-year grant from the National Institute on Aging to research the connection between exercise and brain function as people age.

Dr. Rong Zhang 
Rong Zhang, Ph.D. 
Click photo to download hi-res image

“There are many mysteries about cerebrovascular function in healthy seniors and how it’s different in those with mild cognitive impairment, which leads to Alzheimer’s disease,” Zhang said. “We also know little about whether exercise training improves brain blood flow and brain function. Our goal is to unlock these mysteries and search for better preventions and treatments for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.”

The most common cause of dementia in the United States is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects one in 10 people over age 65 and nearly half of all individuals who reach age 85. More than four million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, making it the fourth leading cause of death in adults.

Many people with mild cognitive impairment eventually develop Alzheimer's disease, although some remain stable and others even return to normal. Zang’s research project, “Mild Cognitive Impairment: Cerebrovascular Dysfunction and Exercise Training,” could lead to better understanding why people develop cognitive impairment and how the condition worsens.

“The importance of this research is paramount as we race to learn more about aging, brain function and what causes dementia and other age-related brain diseases,” said Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the IEEM and senior collaborator of the study. “This work will help us better understand cognitive impairment and has the potential to one day make a significant impact on the prevention and treatment of the disease.”

To learn more about participating in this study, call 214-345-4605.

Zhang’s project will focus on exactly how exercise impacts blood flow to and within the brain, called cerebral perfusion or cerebrovascular function. The overall objective of the project is to test the hypothesis that regulation of blood circulation within the brain is impaired in patients with mild cognitive impairment, leading to brain atrophy, white matter lesions and cognitive impairment. The study will also determine whether endurance exercise training improves cerebrovascular function and if that slows the decline of brain function in patients with mild cognitive impairment.

“Research into the causes and treatments of brain diseases has traditionally focused on patients from the neck up,” Zhang said. “Cardiovascular research has focused on the heart, lungs and blood vessels from the neck down. We want to bridge that divide — and find whether there’s a connection between the two.”

Scientists have long theorized that exercise improves brain perfusion and can help with the development of new synapses, which help neurons in the brain communicate with each other. Scientists have also theorized that exercise might ward off the accumulation of brain plaque, which can interfere with the function of synapses and could be a cause of Alzheimer’s patients.

Estee Brunk, R.N.
Estee Brunk, R.N., is the research nurse for the Alzheimer's research project.
Click photo to download hi-res image

“There’s growing evidence indicating that Alzheimer’s disease develops over many years, long before it’s diagnosed,” said Zhang, who is an assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. “That means preventing the disease and treating it earlier in life, before significant damage is done to the brain, is important.”

Existing treatments are, at best, symptomatic and do little to slow the progression of the disease.

“There’s compelling evidence that patients with Alzheimer’s disease have vascular abnormalities in their brains, but we don’t know if those brain problems cause dementia or are a result from the disease,” said Dr. Anne Lipton, a neurologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and co-author of a major textbook about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “And it remains unclear what role exercise might play in better brain health over time. Dr. Zhang’s work has the potential to answer these questions and help us discover more effective treatments for these devastating brain conditions.”

The IEEM research project will study 72 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 30 healthy elderly subjects in the same age, sex and education range. Thirty-six of the patients with cognitive impairment will be assigned randomly to a one year exercise program; the other 36 will be assigned to a control group performing flexibility and balance training.

Researchers at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas are investigating the connection between exercise and brain function as people age. The goal is to find better preventions and treatments for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia in the United States.

Researchers are looking for subjects who are 65 years or older who have memory concerns or complaints but are generally healthy and lead sedentary lives. The project will study 72 patients with mild cognitive impairment and 30 healthy elderly subjects in the same age, sex and education range. Thirty-six of the patients with cognitive impairment will be assigned randomly to a one year exercise program; the other 36 will be assigned to a control group performing flexibility and balance training. To learn more about participating in this study, contact Estee Brunk at 214-345-4605.

About the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine
The Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine (IEEM) was founded as a joint program between Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Its mission is to promote basic and clinical research, education, and clinical practice in defining the limits to human functional capacity in health and disease, with the objective of improving the quality of life for human beings of all ages. The IEEM includes ten major laboratories tightly integrated and organized intellectually along the “oxygen cascade” — the path that oxygen must follow through the body from the external environment through the lungs, heart, and skeletal muscle to perform cognitive function and physical activity. The IEEM is among the only research centers in the world that fosters the fusion of basic science and clinical medicine in a program designed specifically to study human physiology.

About Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas
Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas is an 866-bed acute care hospital and recognized clinical program leader, having provided compassionate care to the residents of Dallas and surrounding communities since 1966. U.S. News and World Report has ranked Texas Health Dallas among the nation’s best hospitals in digestive disorders, orthopedics, and neurology and neurosurgery. An affiliate of the faith-based, nonprofit Texas Health Resources system, Texas Health Dallas has approximately 4,000 employees and an active medical staff of more than 1,000 physicians. For more information, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit TexasHealth.org/Dallas.

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