By Matt Wiley
“With age comes wisdom,” the saying goes, but as more and more of the elderly are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the opposite occurs. In his 2013 State of the Union speech, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the issue of Alzheimer’s research. Some of that research is going on right in New Tampa’s back yard on the University of South Florida (USF) Tampa campus at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute on Fletcher Ave.
“Today, our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s,” the President says. “They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs.”
However, at the Byrd Institute, the focus is not so much on regenerating, but on preventing. Dr. Dave Morgan, CEO and director of basic neuroscience research at the Byrd Center agrees with the President, but has a different approach.
“I genuinely believe that what we have learned in the last 20 years about this disease has given us the necessary knowledge and tools that we need to do something meaningful,” Morgan explains. “One of the biggest breakthroughs really was recognizing that the amyloid protein is building up for years before the disease even starts.”
Dr. Morgan says that now, knowing that protein is prevalent in all Alzheimer’s patients, he believes that by 2020, Alzheimer’s will be able to be prevented. The reason? Understanding how the disease works and identifying those at risk for several years and, in some cases, even decades before symptoms begin to show.
Understanding Amyloid & Tau
It all comes back to the Amyloid that Morgan mentioned before. Amyloid is a protein produced by the human body. It’s supposed to be there and is produced by the body at the same, constant rate throughout the human lifespan. However, as the body ages, the rate at which the excess amyloid protein is removed slows down. That excess protein builds up as plaque in the brain. Amyloid plaque buildup itself does affect memory, but it doesn’t destroy neurons (cells) inside of the brain. But, Tau does.
Tau is another protein found in the human body, specifically, inside of the neurons in the brain, where it helps transport nutrients. Amyloid plaque outside of the neurons initiates “Tau tangles” inside those neurons, which causes a loss of brain synapses (connections between neurons), leading to the death of those neurons. Amyloid and Tau proteins are similar to cholesterol, in that the body needs them, but only in the correct amounts.
Morgan explains that the Amyloid buildup can occur as early as 20 years before symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin to show, and that’s when most current treatment for Alzheimer’s will be most effective. He says that the most important instrument in the future of Alzheimer’s research is the PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanner, which the Byrd Institute has on-site.
This $1.5-million piece of equipment, purchased through an outside donation, looks very similar to an MRI machine, but measures brain activity in two types of scans. One type of scan measures sugar levels in the brain. When looking at a computer screen of the PET scan of a patient, the doctor looks for color — dark spots indicate inactivity.
The second type of scan works with a new radioactive drug recently approved for trials by the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration). This drug, when introduced to the body intravenously, travels through the body, sticks to Amyloid proteins and glows during a PET scan, allowing the doctor to track how much of it is built up inside the brain, as well as allowing the patient to begin necessary preventive medication long before it’s too late.
Standing six stories tall, the more- than-14,000-sq.-ft., $3.5-million Byrd Institute currently serves more than 5,000 patients and offers memory screenings, patient evaluation and assessment, neuroimaging, medication and psychological treatments, family counseling and research and clinical trials to develop new treatments. There are twelve research labs spanning two floors of the building, where more than 80 scientists, as well as graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, technicians and others work towards ending this degenerative disease.
Dr. Morgan describes the Byrd Institute as a “translational research center,” in which there are both scientists doing research and physicians treating patients, allowing for frequent interaction between the scientists and doctors.
“Ideas can quickly move from the labs into testing,” Dr. Morgan explains. “The model is working. USF is planning to add a similar cardiovascular building.”
Also included inside the state-of-the-art facility is a “Memory C.A.R.E.” (Clinical Assessment, Research and Education) unit, located on the second floor, where families can bring their loved one who may be showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
In the unit is a “functional assessment center” (complete with a working apartment to determine if patients are capable of safely completing tasks around the house), as well as a driving simulator and balance machine, which can determine a patient’s risk of falling at home.
According to the Byrd Institute, more than 5.4 million people in the U.S. are suffering from Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death. In Florida, one out of every 40 people suffers from the disease, one out of every eight of those is 65+ and half of those are older than 85. Even though the State of Florida spends $1 billion annually in Medicaid costs, it provides no annual funding to the Byrd Institute. But, Dr. Morgan is optimistic.
“My prediction is preventing Alzheimer’s by 2020,” he says. “The pool balls are set up. They’re just waiting for the shot to put them all in a pocket.”