Alzheimer's conference at ASU to highlight advances in fight against disease – ASU News Now

The Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium Conference, which brings together some of the nation’s top scientists and physicians to discuss advances in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, will be held Sept. 22 at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus.
The one-day conference will include more than 100 interactive scientific presentations, 10 Q&A sessions with neurological research leaders and a keynote address by Sterling Johnson, the associate director for the Wisconsin Alzheimer Disease Research Center and the principal investigator for one of the world’s largest and longest-running studies of individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for researchers to come together, but it’s also an amazing opportunity for students to come and rub elbows at a one-on-one level,” said David Coon, the director of ASU’s Center for Innovation in Healthy and Resilient Aging.
ASU News talked to Coon and ASU University Professor Eric Reiman, who is also the executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute and director of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, about the conference and the latest advances in Alzheimer’s research.
Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Question: What advances in Alzheimer’s research will be talked about at this conference?
Reiman: One of the areas that there’s tremendous excitement about is the emerging role of potentially blood-based biomarkers. We now have brain imaging techniques and cerebral spinal fluid biomarker measurements that require you to put a needle in somebody’s back, and not a lot of people volunteer to do that. So, with the emerging development of potentially affordable, repeatable and widely accessible blood tests, you can imagine the chance to galvanize research and support drug development.
One of the real challenges to Alzheimer’s research has been the inclusion of individuals from underrepresented and underserved minority groups, an area that David has spent an awful lot of time thinking about. (Having blood tests) would help us know how these biological measurements or treatments that were investigated behave in these underrepresented groups.
Q: Would these blood tests be as simple as scheduling an appointment at your doctor’s office?
Reiman: We’re not really where we need to be yet in this space, but it has the potential to transform research, treatment development and clinical care.
I’ll give you an example in the clinical care space. There was a treatment that was approved by the FDA last year called aducanumab, which can help reduce amyloid beta plaque in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. But you would need an amyloid PET scan to know who has plaque in the brain, and the test would be expensive and it’s not going to be feasible to do an expensive PET scan every two years. So instead of doing a $5,000 PET scan, what if you could do a $75 blood test to either reduce or eliminate the need for those PET scans? It could be helpful in reaching out to people who aren’t close to specialty centers and imaging centers.
Q: How close are we to those blood tests becoming a reality?
Reiman: These blood tests look very promising, but there’s more work that needs to be done. But I think they could be available in the next year or two.
Q: David, Eric mentioned underserved communities. What is known about the preponderance of Alzheimer’s in these communities?
Coon: There may be risk factors that increase the proportion of folks that are impacted in these communities. We really have to continue to establish ongoing relationships with these communities. I think there’s some myth that everything has to be hand-in-hand. The bottom line is there are a growing number of folks from underserved communities, from minority communities, that do engage in social media and utilize smartphones to help them stay connected, not only to providers but also to what’s happening in the research world. So, how do we provide ongoing education? How do we provide opportunities to help serve these families that are already impacted by Alzheimer’s disease?
Q: What are those risk factors you mentioned?
Coon: Diet, sleep issues, exercise issues, access to health care across their lifespan.
Reiman: We believe that genetic factors account for about 70% of a person’s risk in developing Alzheimer’s disease, leaving 30% which you could potentially intervene with to promote cognitive health and slow or delay the onset of symptoms. Also, we see a number of factors that promote a healthy heart that have been suggested to promote a healthy brain, like a heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet.
In the meantime, we are waiting to see what happens with some disease-modifying treatments. We’ve seen so much progress on Alzheimer’s research, understanding risk factors … but the glaring exception to this progress has been finding effective treatments. Once we have treatments that work, we’ll be able to know what biological changes are associated with the clinical benefit, further inform the development of treatments and speed up the evaluation of prevention therapies.
We’ll see what happens in the next year, but we have a 50-50 chance that these treatments (being currently tested) will demonstrate a benefit in the next few months in cognitively impaired individuals. And if they do, we’ll have a great chance in supporting and finding the approval of prevention therapies potentially in the next five years. There’s no guarantee, but we’ll know soon.
Q: That’s incredible news.
Reiman: We’ve just completed the world’s first trial of an investigational drug to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. We did a five-to-eight-year trial for which we were disappointed that we did not see a statistically significant benefit. But what this study did was show that prevention trials were possible, and it led to ways to accelerate the evaluation and approval of prevention therapy.
We have other prevention trials going on right now. And if those treatments work in the next few months, we’ll have an outstanding chance to find and support the … prevention of clinical onset of Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. So there’s a lot of work happening in this space.
Top photo courtesy iStock
Reporter , ASU News

Derek Parra’s eating plan was fairly simple. Whatever his mom, Miriam, put on the plate, he would eat — sometimes up to four portions.In-between meals, he would down unhealthy snacks, sodas or juices with a high sugar content.Parra still can put away the food. He’s 15 years old, after all. But the Valley teenager is making wiser decisions to feed that teenage appetite, drinking water instead…
Derek Parra’s eating plan was fairly simple. Whatever his mom, Miriam, put on the plate, he would eat — sometimes up to four portions.
In-between meals, he would down unhealthy snacks, sodas or juices with a high sugar content.
Parra still can put away the food. He’s 15 years old, after all. But the Valley teenager is making wiser decisions to feed that teenage appetite, drinking water instead of soda – with the occasional Dr. Pepper mixed in – and eating more vegetables and fruit.
Miriam is helping as well, cooking with less oil and encouraging Derek and her other children to get their sugar from fruit instead of candy.
They’ve fallen off the wagon at times, but they’ve also learned what to eat and, just as importantly, how to eat.
“We’re very conscious about what we’re eating,” Miriam said through an interpreter. “That information has stuck with us.”
Those healthier choices — and the education needed to change habits — are exactly what Gabriel Shaibi, a professor in Arizona State University’s Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, hoped to accomplish when he launched a program six years ago to help Valley Latino children, ages 12 to 18, who were predisposed to diabetes.
The results of the study, which was boosted in 2021 with a $3.3 million grant from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, were published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Among the findings:
“What we learned is that these kids, when you provide them access to preventative services, they can do better,” said Shaibi, the principal investigator on the project.
Shaibi said the impetus for the study was data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed Latino children are predisposed for diabetes at a rate between 1.5 and 1.7 times higher than white children.
“We designed a study that says, ‘You know, we appreciate that there’s disparities in the community,’” Shaibi said. “And these disparities are not just about the haves or have-nots but these kids also have a really difficult time accessing traditional health care services.”
The program, which included 117 families from around the Valley, was a collaborative effort between ASU, Valley of the Sun YMCA, St. Vincent de Paul and Phoenix Children’s Hospital, the latter two of which recruited families and helped design the curriculum.
The dual focuses: Education and exercise.
“The real key is how do I implement this into my day-to-day life,” said Micah Olson, medical director for the Type 2 diabetes program at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and a co-author and co-investigator on the study. “And that is not easy, especially in the environment that we live in today, where calories come very cheap and it’s hard to move our bodies the way we used to.
“So the hypothesis of the study was: Can we deliver this information in a way that’s culturally focused and delivered by teachers that culturally speak the language and would that be more effective in having kids and families make the kind of changes that we’re asking them to do, compared to what we might do in the halls of a medical clinic?”
Parents and their children made their way to the downtown Phoenix YMCA once a week to do physical exercises, learn how to make better food choices, and both modify and keep track of their behavior. The exercise programs were designed by YMCA trainers, and bilingual health educators and dieticians from St. Vincent’s and Phoenix Children’s Hospital were on hand to help families that didn’t speak English.
“It’s all delivered in the community, by the community, for the community,” Shaibi said. “We think that is pretty unique because it’s not, ‘Hey, come to our clinic at ASU.’ It’s, ‘We’re going to bring the research to the community where it can best be implemented.’”
The families were given assignments, one of which was being handed coupons for Food City and having to find ingredients for a healthy meal at less than $5 per person.
“That becomes their homework,” Shaibi said. “Can you go out, shop for and prepare a healthy meal on that budget? That was eye opening to some of these families.”
The following week, the families would talk about the healthy meal they made and how they were surprised they could do so on such a limited budget.
It’s all delivered in the community, by the community, for the community.
— Gabriel Shaibi, professor, Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation
“We made it a little bit of a competition as well,” said Elvia Lish, director of the Ivy Center for Family Wellness at St. Vincent de Paul. “We’d tell them, ‘It has to be delicious, but it has to be cost-effective.’ And then whoever has the lowest cost meals won the prize or the game. They came up with really great examples that highlighted you don’t have to eat really expensive foods in order to be healthy.”
The families were also given healthy recipes they could cook.
“It gave me a sense of nutrition, like certain things that I was not supposed to eat too much of and how to eat a balanced diet,” Miriam Parra said.
Libby Corral, chief operating officer of the YMCA, said the shared experiences of the families brought them together in a way individual diet, exercise and nutrition programs could not.
“They really developed that sense of community,” Corral said. “We had these groups of families and kids that have the same issues and are able to learn from each other and support each other. They built friendships and relationships that outlasted the program itself.”
Shaibi’s hope is that the study has generational benefits for families. The children who exercise and develop healthy eating habits today will be the parents who teach their own children those behaviors tomorrow. To do its part, the YMCA has given all 117 families in the study free six-month memberships.
“We know these types of diseases travel in families,” Shaibi said. “If you are a kid whose parents have diabetes, you’re more likely to get diabetes. But we also know that prevention and behaviors track in families. If your parents were active, you’re more likely to be active and so on.”
Although the study is complete, the work isn’t. Shaibi and his team have received an additional round of funding to continue the research and target entire households over the next five years.
“We’re trying to have a bigger effect,” he said. “It can be mom, dad, cousins, grandparents, whoever’s living in the household.”
Top photo: Participants in the program after a fitness class at the YMCA.
Reporter , ASU News

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