Neurocognitive Disorders Research
Our research focuses on the causes, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of neurodegenerative disorders. Below, you will find some background information about our center’s research interests, accomplishments, and objectives.
We have a number of ongoing research studies and clinical trials for a variety of neurocognitive disorders. If you are interested in participating, please check out our trials and their requirements by clicking on the links below or on one of the sections listed on the left for a particular disorder.
AN OVERVIEW: THE “WHAT, WHY, AND HOW” OF OUR RESEARCH
At the UT Health Neurocognitive Disorders Center (NDC), we take a multipronged approach to research. We are working to understand the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders (“etiology”), to generate new disease-specific diagnostic techniques, and to develop more effective prevention and treatment strategies for these diseases.
The development of new techniques to prevent, diagnose, and treat specific neurodegenerative diseases is dependent on an understanding of their underlying causes. Genetic mutations, environmental causes, and lifestyle-associated factors are widely accepted to contribute to the risk of neurocognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). The identification of novel disease-specific factors and genetic changes contributing to the development of neurodegenerative diseases is a focus of our research group.
At the NDC, we are identifying genetic changes that occur in patients with a variety of neurocognitive disorders that may be specific to disease susceptibility, development, and progression. These changes may be useful in disease diagnosis and the development of new targeted therapies. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is known to increase the risk of dementia. Our group has determined that even minor traumatic brain injury increases the risk for developing Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) by fourfold.
The NDC has found several new ways in which post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may contribute to dementia. We have further shown that PTSD may be associated with permanent brain changes and is associated with an increased risk for strokes and substance abuse.
Finally, we are investigating other risk factors for dementia, including family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or triglycerides, diabetes, obesity, and smoking. Healthy lifestyle choices may reduce the risk of dementia. We are also investigating the possibility that some neurodegenerative diseases may be transmissible from dietary sources or blood products.
Neurocognitive disorders, whether neurologic or psychiatric in origin, present with a variety of overlapping symptoms; as a result, they can be challenging to diagnose. Because misdiagnosis can lead to delays in treatment, early and accurate diagnosis is critical.
The Neurocognitive Disorders Center (NDC) was the first site in Houston to offer the florbetapir (Amyvid) PET scan, a new diagnostic tool that detects the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain, a disease-specific hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Members of the NDC are also participating in the development of new PET agents for the diagnosis of AD and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the second most common form of dementia. FTD involves deposition of different proteins from AD, therefore new PET agents are required to visualize those proteins and provide a more accurate diagnosis.
Finally, our group is working to develop tests to diagnose dementia at its earliest stages. The most effective treatments may, in fact, be those applied before symptoms develop, and therefore be used to ultimately delay or prevent AD in at-risk populations. The ultimate goal of this research is to develop blood tests for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, so that treatment can be delivered in a more timely manner.
Treatment and Prevention
There are multiple risk factors for dementia. Some of these factors are modifiable, which could reduce the risk of developing dementia. Therefore, we began a Stroke-Dementia Prevention Clinic. The clinic is dedicated to evaluating persons without symptoms who have a concern about developing these disorders. Our most typical patients are people who have a parent or sibling with dementia and want to reduce their risk. We evaluate each patient’s risk factors and develop a plan to modify them. This unique clinic is also dedicated to translating basic science advances from the laboratory to improve early diagnosis and prevention of dementia.
By using sophisticated new technologies, our center is studying neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease, and the underlying risk factors, such as PTSD and TBI, at the genetic, cellular, and clinical levels. Our goal is to diagnose dementia before patients become symptomatic and to find new treatments to delay or prevent the development of dementia.
Brain Tissue Donation: Donated brain tissue is critically needed for medical research. The NDC gratefully accepts post-mortem brain donations from people with and without neurodegenerative disorders. We realize that for many families, the donation of any tissue may be a difficult decision, often made under stressful circumstances. We encourage all persons who are willing to consider post-mortem tissue donation to discuss this option with the physicians at the NDC. The information provided by autopsies is invaluable for understanding the biology of neurocognitive disorders, and may also reveal important health information for family members.