We pick Valley doctors’ brains on a host of local neurological studies.

Mind Over Matter

Written by Marilyn Hawkes Category: Valley News Issue: April 2017
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Alzheimer’s Analysis

Banner Alzheimer’s Institute (BAI) has a clear message: “Help us end Alzheimer’s before we lose another generation.” Today, an estimated 5.4 million Americans have the memory-robbing disease, but by 2050, scientists predict that number will nearly triple to 13.8 million.

Jessica Langbaum, Ph.D., principal scientist at BAI and associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, says one way to combat the rising tide is to sign up for the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry, a vehicle to help recruit subjects ages 18 and older for critical prevention research. To date, more than 260,000 people have joined the registry.

Last year, the Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry launched GeneMatch, a program designed to identify a large group of people interested in volunteering for Alzheimer’s research studies based in part on genetic information. Participants must be between 55-75 years old and give a cheek swab DNA sample. GeneMatch has enrolled more than 30,000 people and aims to enroll 50,000 by the end of 2017, Langbaum says.

One prevention study that’s currently enrolling, the API Generation Study, will assess the effects of two investigational drugs to evaluate whether they can slow down the emergence and progression of symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s in people identified by genetic markers who are at increased risk to develop the disease.

BAI received national recognition during a November 2016 60 Minutes feature,  “The Alzheimer’s Lab,” for its National Institutes of Health-backed trial with an extended family in Antioquia, Colombia, that carries the genetic mutation for Alzheimer’s disease. This rare form of the disease (autosomal-dominant Alzheimer’s disease) accounts for less than 1 percent of all cases worldwide, Langbaum says. “It’s caused by a genetic mutation [and] if you happen to inherit the mutation from either parent, you will with 100 percent certainty develop Alzheimer’s disease.”

The Colombian family is making a real contribution in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, Langbaum says. “They could perhaps be the important piece of the puzzle to help us find an answer.”

For more information, visit banneralz.org. To join the registry, visit endalznow.org.

Dr. Javier Cárdenas, a neurologist and concussion expert at Barrow Neurological Institute, knows a thing or two about head injuries. He created the Barrow Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center and serves on the NFL Head, Neck and Spine Committee.
When it comes to the latest research on concussions, Cárdenas cites three areas: prevention, detection and treatment. Some highlights include:

• Prevention
Arizona is at the forefront of concussion safety with the recent institution of a helmet dislodgement rule, requiring athletes to go to the sideline if their helmets come off. Barrow published the Barrow Brain Book to educate athletes about concussions and is studying the materials used in sports gear to increase player safety.

• Detection
Barrow partners in research projects with Riddell Helmets, Arizona State University and Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) to advance athlete concussion detection and treatment. TGen examines blood biomarkers to detect when an injury to the brain has occurred and when an athlete is ready to go back on the field. Barrow tracks concussions in student athletes to study long-term concussion effects and has a registry for domestic violence victims with traumatic brain injury.

• Treatment
Instead of suggesting rest only, neurologists are now looking to active recovery models in terms of concussion therapy, including working with vision, balance and hand-eye coordination. 



Medicinal Meditation
Initially, Hospice of the Valley (HOV) offered Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) training for staff, caregivers and volunteers to help them cope with the stress of caring for patients. Recently, they’ve extended the mind-calming training to patients to combat anxiety and control shortness of breath, according to Dr. Gillian Hamilton, HOV’s administrative medical director.  

“It’s a kind of meditation. There’s no spiritual belief or religion attached to it,” Hamilton says. “It’s simply being in the present and trying to teach yourself to try to live your life.”

Research shows that people who practice MSBR, which requires sitting quietly, focusing on breathing and bringing the mind into the present, have less pain, lower blood sugar and lessened anxiety and depression, Hamilton says.  The brain differences can be seen on an MRI taken before and after practicing MSBR. But just like exercise, if you don’t keep it up, you lose the benefits.

HOV also offers classes to the public. Visit hov.org.

The amygdala (the part of the brain that processes fear, anger, impulse, aggression, depression and anxiety) gets smaller

During MSBR, the hippocampus and temporal lobes (the areas that process memory, emotional regulation and social cognition) get bigger.