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Saturday, January 22, 2022

$18 million grant extends life course study on cognitive diseases

The KHANDLE Study receives a grant from the NIA to continue the study for another five years and open up a brain donation program 

By MONICA MANMADKAR — science@theaggie.org

Researching how early life experiences can affect dementia and other cognitive diseases late in life, Professor Rachel Whitmer in the Department of Public Health Sciences has been given a grant from the National Institute of Aging to continue her study at UC Davis Health. 

The $18 million, five-year grant will continue the KHANDLE (Kaiser Healthy Aging and Diverse Life Experiences) Study, which looks at a variety of risk factors that could affect one’s chance for cognitive decline later in life. 

In addition to being the principal investigator of the KHANDLE study, Whitmer is the chief of the Division of Epidemiology at the Department of Public Health Sciences and also the associate director at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

“[This study] helps understand how life course, health and behavior from mid-life to young adulthood are associated with these late-life brain outcomes,” Whitmer said.

Over the last five years, the KHANDLE study has had 1,700 participants of ages 65 and older, who are all members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California. Whitmer said the racial breakdown of the participants were 25% Asian, 25% Latino, 25% Black and 25% white. 

She also said that the participants come from communities that are historically underrepresented in research. Other current large studies that are looking at risk factors for dementia or brain health tend to focus on populations that are not as representative. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association Alzheimer’s 2021 Fact and Figures Special Report, many BIPOC individuals would like to have culturally competent healthcare providers and lack trust in research trials. Many doubt that advancements made in dementia care will be racially unbiased and equally available for all. Hence, Whitmer is more eager to gain a large, diverse set of participants that can accurately reflect the population affected by dementia and provide profitable research progress for all. 

Throughout the past five years, the KHANDLE study conducted three research interviews with each participant and will now conduct two more interviews. Whitmer said that the study has access to the participants’ health records from the 1960s and 1970s, allowing them to do life course epidemiology. 

“Life course is really understanding how things that happen throughout your lifetime can be associated with whatever outcome you’re interested in, [which] in this case is under brain health,” Whitmer said. 

Additionally, the grant is allowing the KHANDLE study to enroll another 500 participants and open a new brain donation program, where the participants who pass during the next five years would be able to donate their brains for research. Whitmer said she is glad to have this new addition to the study with the help of the grant. She believes that the brain donation program is highly valuable in terms of looking at the brain and understanding what cognitive decline looks like beyond just imaging. 

The program will be run by Brittany Dugger, an assistant professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. 

“This grant leverages and enhances existing infrastructure within the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center,” Dugger said via email. “One brain [donation] can have a huge impact, providing a plethora of information to advance scientific research and the potential to improve treatments for future generations. Brains are especially needed from diverse populations to help researchers improve diagnosis, treatments and prognosis of diseases for all individuals.” 

With the donations, researchers can conduct a neuropathology examination and try to understand the underlying causes of these cognitive diseases. Dugger illustrated that by using the data from a person’s life and by looking at their brain, scientists can better understand the mechanism of dementia and other related disorders. 

Overall, Whitmer hopes that the study will further knowledge in acknowledging early and mid-age risk factors beforehand and understanding how they affect brain function and health later in life. 

Written by: Monica Manmadkar — science@theaggie.org

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