Psychologist looks to body, mind to preserve memory

Ira Driscoll has always been fascinated by memories – how they’re formed, where they’re stored and how people access them. That interest led her to look into the causes and tragic consequences of having memories stolen away by disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Driscoll, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, researches the genetic risks for diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, and seeks out early predictors of these disorders.

She’s now recruiting healthy volunteers, ages 40-60, for a study that will involve behavioral testing, brain imaging and, eventually, blood work to detect age-related changes. The study will also look at how such factors as hormone therapy and obesity might possibly modify an individual’s genetic risk – positively or negatively – for memory disorders.

“What we’re doing is testing for performance that is outside the normal range, and relating that to an individual’s genetic background, and seeing if we can use that information to predict early decline or impairment,” explains Driscoll.

Volunteers are being recruited from a clinic at the Medical College of Wisconsin to undergo psychological testing to establish baseline information. This step will be followed by brain scans and blood work. Currently 40 volunteers are involved. Driscoll hopes to eventually have 200 people in the study.

While knowing early on if they’re at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia may be alarming to some middle-aged adults: “Knowing what may happen could help them improve the quality of their lives. Ultimately, the research is aimed at delaying the onset or slowing down the progression of these diseases. The behavioral testing, adds Driscoll, is not intended to be diagnostic, and those with concerns will need to talk to their family physician about next steps.

In particular, Driscoll and her team are studying the function of the hippocampus, a region of the brain that tends to be affected by Alzheimer’s in its early stages. By studying volunteers early on, before real signs of illness or impairment appear, researchers hope to begin to gather clues about the biological mechanisms that trigger the disease, and then they will begin to probe further.

“Alzheimer’s specifically is a very complex disease with many symptoms occurring at the same time. This is a fruitful area of research because by the time someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s so many things have gone wrong that it’s hard to tell what’s a consequence of the disease and what might have been a cause of it.”

At the same time, some people remain mentally functional into very old age, and researchers need to figure out what factors tend to protect them from the memory loss that affects others. Having Alzheimer’s in the family may increase the risk, says Driscoll.

“But it doesn’t guarantee you will get it,” she adds. “Some people live well into their 90s without any kind of impairment.”

While researchers haven’t identified the exact mechanisms that trigger the disorders, they do have some information on possible lifestyle changes that may help. “There is no single, guaranteed protective factor,” says Driscoll, “but we do know exercise, a good diet and managing your weight are helpful and are also are protective against many other diseases.”

Adults who are obese in middle age have been shown to have a higher risk of dementia, she adds, though researchers are still researching exactly how the consequences and causes of obesity – metabolic syndrome, blood pressure, glucose irregularities – are intertwined.

“Obesity, however, is certainly a risk factor that is modifiable.

Those interested in taking part in the study can go to the project’s recruitment site.  The study’s researchers will call those who meet requirements. Potential participants can also contact Elizabeth Awe, the study coordinator at (414) 229-4608.