Rodrigo Morales, Ph.D. and Ines Moreno-Gonzalez, Ph.D. have been awarded grants for their innovative Alzheimer’s disease research.
Rodrigo Morales, Ph.D. and Ines Moreno-Gonzalez, Ph.D. have been awarded grants for their innovative Alzheimer’s disease research.

By the time the forgetfulness and confusion start, many people with Alzheimer’s disease have already suffered irreversible brain damage. At McGovern Medical School, neuroscientists are working on innovative ways to detect the disease in its early, asymptomatic stages.

The hope is that this information will allow doctors to one day intervene while brain cells can still be saved. More than 5 million Americans have this incurable condition, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Two members of the Department of Neurology, Ines Moreno-Gonzalez, Ph.D., and Rodrigo Morales, Ph.D., have each been awarded two-year, $100,000 research grants from the Alzheimer’s Association. Both are assistant professors at McGovern Medical School.

“Since anyone with a brain is at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, each and every person has a vested interest in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Drs. Moreno-Gonzalez and Morales are leaders in helping us look to a hopeful future,” said Julie Kutac, Ph.D., professional education and research specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association-Houston and Southeast Chapter.

Since awarding its first grants in 1982, the Alzheimer’s Association has grown into the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Alzheimer’s research, awarding more than $350 million to over 2,300 best-of-field grant proposals, Kutac added.

Moreno-Gonzalez and Morales are using their grants to study the onset of the disease at the molecular level. While they are in the early stages of their work, it could lead to early diagnostics involving blood samples and/or medical images.

Moreno-Gonzalez’s research is focused on those who have a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease – traumatic brain injury (TBI). Nearly 2 million people in the United States suffer a TBI each year, Brainline.org reports.

In particular, Moreno-Gonzalez is searching for toxic proteins produced after a TBI event. To spot the changes that follow a TBI and precede Alzheimer’s disease, she plans to study medical images of mouse models.

Her eventual test could combine a blood sample with a positron emission tomography (PET) scan.

Eva Sevick-Muraca, Ph.D.; Sun Kuk Kwon, Ph.D.; and Paul Schulz, M.D., are collaborating with Moreno-Gonzalez on her grant. Sevick-Muraca is the Nancy and Rich Kinder Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Disease Research and director of the Center for Molecular Imaging at UTHealth. Kwon is an assistant professor and The Carolyn Frost Keenan Professor in Cardiovascular Disease Research at UTHealth. Schulz is a professor of neurology at UTHealth and a member of the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute-Texas Medical Center.

Morales is taking a broader approach in his search for the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

His research is focused on a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease called beta-amyloid, which builds up around brain cells and may impair their ability to share information.

Morales is analyzing beta-amyloid taken from blood and other non-brain tissues to further understand what starts the plaque buildup throughout the brain. He hopes to identify the disease’s onset and how tissues, other than brain, participate in the origin and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Moreno-Gonzalez, Sevick-Muraca, and Morales are on the faculty of The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston. Moreno-Gonzalez is a member of the UTHealth Consortium on Aging.

Schulz, Morales, and Moreno-Gonzalez are members of The George P. and Cynthia W. Mitchell Center for Research in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders.

Moreno-Gonzalez received a New Investigator Research Grant for a project titled “PET Imaging to Detect Alzheimer’s-Like Pathology After Brain Injury” and Morales a New Investigator Research Grant to Promote Diversity for a project titled “Contribution of peripheral amyloid-beta over brain pathology in AD.”