Our center focuses on research into the causes, diagnosis, 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; to find more information about our current research for a particular diagnosis, please click on the link for that diagnosis in the navigation menu on the left (e.g., for our current research on Alzheimer’s disease, please click the link titled “Alzheimer’s Disease Research”).
AN OVERVIEW: THE “WHAT, WHY, AND HOW” OF OUR RESEARCH
We take a multipronged approach to research at the Neurocognitive Disorders Center (NDC). We work to generate new diagnostic techniques, investigate the underlying causes of neurodegenerative disorders (“etiologies”), and develop more effective treatments and preventative measures.
Symptoms of neurocognitive disorders can be caused by various neurologic or psychiatric disorders; as a result, they can be challenging to diagnose. Because treatments differ dramatically and misdiagnosis can lead to delays in treatment, early and accurate diagnosis is critical.
The Neurocognitive Disorders Center (NDC) was the first in Houston to offer a new diagnostic tool that tests for Alzheimer’s disease with high reliability, i.e. using a florbetapir (Amyvid) scan to rule out the disorder. Members of the NDC are also helping to develop new PET agents for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and for frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the second most common neurodegenerative dementia. Because FTD involves depositions of different proteins than AD, new PET agents are required to visualize those proteins in living humans for correct diagnosis.
Our group is also focusing on tests to diagnose dementia earlier because we believe that treatments are more effective the sooner they are initiated. The most effective treatments may, in fact, be those applied before symptoms develop. Along those lines, we are developing a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease that may improve our ability to diagnose people earlier and with less expense.
To improve our ability to diagnose these disorders, the NDC also recently recruited several neuropsychologists who perform cognitive testing and an additional neurologist, Dr. David H. Hunter, who also specializes in neurocognitive disorders. In 2013, we moved to a new building at UTHealth Medical School to accommodate the expanding center.
Causes of the neurodegenerative diseases (NDDs) affecting millions of Americans remain unclear. At MNI, we are investigating genetic contributions to neurodegenerative diseases by comparing the genetic code of patients with NDDs to that of persons without these disorders. We have also been testing for a transmissible component to NDDs.
TBI is known to increase the risk of AD. Perhaps our most important recent finding regarding risk factors is that even minor traumatic brain injury (TBI) increases the risk for developing FTD by fourfold. Please see the research highlight for more information. The second most important recent finding relates to the contribution of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the development of dementia. The NDC has found several new ways in which PTSD may contribute to dementia, including increasing the risk for strokes and substance abuse. An additional critical finding is evidence that PTSD may be associated with permanent brain changes. Finally, we are investigating other risk factors for dementia, including family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or triglycerides, diabetes, obesity and smoking. Controlling these factors reduces the risk for developing dementia.
Treatment and Prevention
With the recognition that there are multiple risk factors for dementia, that they are modifiable, and that this modification reduces the risk of developing dementia, 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 NDDs, 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.
Note: An important part of our research program is to diagnose and understand with 100% accuracy what the underlying brain changes are that cause a patient’s condition, which can help us develop new techniques for diagnosing future patients. Our ultimate concern is the improvement of each patient’s condition and quality of life; while we do not enjoy thinking and talking about losing patients, we must note that a crucial part of neurodegenerative research is the generosity of donors who share their brain tissue with us after they have passed. We encourage all persons who are willing to consider this to discuss this option with Dr. Schulz or Dr. Hunter. The information provided by autopsies is invaluable for understanding a person’s diagnosis better, for research purposes, and for giving advice to family members.