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Pitt Team to Lead Effort Exploring Alzheimer’s Biomarkers, Cognitive Function in Adults with Down Syndrome

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 19, 2015 – With the help of an estimated $12.5 million grant over five years from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Alzheimer’s disease experts at the University of Pittsburgh will lead a multicenter effort exploring the progression of biomarkers of the disorder and cognitive function in people with Down syndrome.
Adults with Down syndrome typically show symptoms of Alzheimer’s by their 40s and have a 70 to 80 percent chance of developing clinical dementia by their 60s, said co-principal investigator Ben Handen, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine. People with Down syndrome have three copies of chromosome 21, each containing a copy of the gene associated with the precursor protein for beta-amyloid, which is found in excess in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
“It’s apparent from Down syndrome patients that amyloid deposition is not sufficient to produce dementia,” Dr. Handen said. “These individuals have these deposits for more than a decade before cognitive decline is apparent. Understanding the relationships between Down syndrome, disease biomarkers and cognitive decline is critically important to help us design better therapies for all people with Alzheimer’s.”
In the Neurodegeneration in Aging Down Syndrome study (NiAD), researchers at four sites in the United States and the United Kingdom will monitor for five years 180 people older than 25 with Down syndrome and 40 people without the condition for factors including amyloid in blood and cerebrospinal fluid and on PET scans; structural and functional MRI scans; and cognitive/functional measures in 180 people older than 25 with Down syndrome.
Dr. Handen said, “The collaboration of several research institutions, each of which has worked independently in Alzheimer’s research, will strengthen our efforts by bringing together the largest biomarker studies going on in the general population.”
NiAD is part of the NIH’s Biomarkers of Alzheimer’s Disease in Adults with Down Syndrome Initiative, which supports teams of researchers using brain imaging, and fluid and tissue biomarkers in research that may one day lead to effective interventions for all people with dementia. 
“This is the first large-scale Alzheimer’s biomarker endeavor to focus on this high-risk group,” said Laurie Ryan, Ph.D., chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch in NIA’s Division of Neuroscience, which leads NIH research on Alzheimer’s. “Much like the long-established Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, the goal of this initiative is to develop biomarker measures that signal the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s in people with Down syndrome. Hopefully, one day, we also will use these biomarkers to determine the effectiveness of promising treatments.” 
The other sites are at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix; and Cambridge University, UK. The NiAD study is funded by NIA grant 1U01AG05140.

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