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UC Irvine study delves into why women are more likely than men to suffer from Alzheimer's

UC Irvine study delves into why women are more likely than men to suffer from Alzheimer's
Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones, pictured, and Dr. Sunil Gandhi are studying why women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. (Courtesy of UC Irvine)

Two UC Irvine researchers recently began investigating why women are almost twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Drs. Sunil Gandhi and Mathew Blurton-Jones were the winners of a $100,000 grant competition organized by UCI’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, a group founded by Maria Shriver.

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Dr. Josh Grill, co-director of UCI MIND, said the move is meant to help focus some of the institute’s best scientists on finding out what leads to the sex disparity in Alzheimer’s diagnoses.

“The idea with this recent partnership is to focus the energy of our best scientists on the relationship between Alzheimer’s and sex and gender,” Grill said. “This’ll let our scientists gather some preliminary data that will make them competitive for larger grants.”

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Grill said researchers have traditionally traced the disparity to women’s longer lifespans, considering they are more likely to live to the ages where the risk for Alzheimer’s increases exponentially.

Grill said that while this is the biggest contributor to the imbalance, it’s not the entire explanation.

New research published in June suggested that hormonal influences or pregnancy-related changes in the immune system may increase women’s risk.

Dr. Sunil Gandhi will be working with Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones to learn why women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
Dr. Sunil Gandhi will be working with Dr. Mathew Blurton-Jones to learn why women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. (Courtesy of UC Irvine)

The study conducted by Gandhi and Blurton-Jones, who are both UCI associate professors of neurobiology and behavior, will look at the relationship between Alzheimer’s and microglia — the brain’s primary immune cells.

Blurton-Jones said microglia play a role in clearing toxic proteins from the brain, including the beta-amyloid protein linked to Alzheimer’s.

Recent genetic studies show that more than half of the risk genes associated with Alzheimer’s are created by microglia, he said.

For the study, researchers will extract donated skin cells from male and female participants, which will be “reprogrammed” and matured into microglia that can be compared. The microglia will also be put into the brains of male and female mice.

Blurton-Jones said the transplants have already begun, but researchers will wait a few months before examining the effects in the brains of mice.

Funding for the study is considered a pilot grant and the research is expected to last about a year. However, Blurton-Jones said they’re hoping to discover information about microglia that will lead to bigger grants from the National Institutes of Health so the research can continue.

“The quicker we know about why it is that women get Alzheimer’s more, the quicker we can start to create new therapies to treat it,” Blurton-Jones said.

Maria Shriver, far left, at a UCI MIND gala in January. She's pictured with donor and Alzheimer's research participant Ann Quilter of Laguna Beach, center, and Aimee Pierce, the medical director of UCI MIND.
Maria Shriver, far left, at a UCI MIND gala in January. She's pictured with donor and Alzheimer's research participant Ann Quilter of Laguna Beach, center, and Aimee Pierce, the medical director of UCI MIND. (Courtesy of Stan Sholik)

UCI MIND is Orange County’s only state- and federally-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. The group is comprised of more than 50 UCI faculty members from various departments, including medical clinicians, biological scientists, statisticians, psychologists and bio-mathematicians.

The interdisciplinary unit has served as the university’s center for aging and dementia research for more than 30 years, using novel approaches to study Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and Huntington’s disease.

The money for the grant was raised at a UCI MIND fundraiser in January, when the group also honored Shriver, who founded her nonprofit a few years ago to focus on women’s cognitive health, in particular to raise awareness about and raise funds for research into the sex disparity in Alzheimer’s diagnoses.

Though this is the most substantial partnership between the two organizations, Grill has worked with the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement in the past and serves on its scientific advisory board.

Grill said he’s hoping the partnership with the Women's Alzheimer’s Movement will grow.

“[Shriver] is amazing, and her organization is doing great work,” Grill said.

The former California first lady initiated the national discussion about the sex disparity in Alzheimer’s when “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s” was published in 2009.

Erin Stein, executive director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, said the report was the first time the sex disparity was addressed in that way.

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