Wisconsin ADRC hosts Alzheimer’s disease investigators from Germany, develops plan for international research efforts

The Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) hosted six scientists from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) March 21-22, 2017, in Madison, Wisconsin. The two groups, which established a research collaboration agreement in the spring of 2015, aim to utilize their combined efforts to speed the pace of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“I think this partnership is defined by its optimism,” says Dr. Rick Moss, senior associate dean for research at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Alzheimer’s disease is among our very top priorities at the University of Wisconsin. Collaborations across departments within the School of Medicine and Public Health and other colleges on campus, as well as with the DZNE, will bring us closer to ways to delay symptoms of the disease as we work toward an ultimate cure.”

The workshop started with delegates from the DZNE and the UW presenting research updates in dementia. During the rest of the visit, the group identified research questions that could be best answered by harnessing strengths from both centers. Investigators at the ADRC and DZNE expect to submit a joint grant proposal later this year, as well as lay the groundwork for a future multi-site clinical trial.

The two groups share several similarities that make them an ideal match for joint research efforts, including longitudinal studies that follow research volunteers over several years and even decades. The ADRC and the DZNE also collect much of the same data from their research participants, which means that the researchers will be able to study a larger number of participants by pooling across the two centers. They will be able to determine whether research findings that apply to people living Wisconsin also apply to people living in Germany.

“This is an important international partnership that will produce research that would be impossible with the efforts of just one center,” says Dr. Sanjay Asthana, associate dean for gerontology and director of the ADRC. “Research at the ADRC stretches from molecules to patients to community. This allows us to apply our research to people throughout Wisconsin and improve public health around the state. Our partnership with the DNZE allows us to take that impact international.”

The ADRC and DZNE share similar goals in their work to understand Alzheimer’s disease and how to prevent it. Both groups are interested in early detection and protection with an emphasis on identifying changes in the brain that happen decades before a person develops the tell-tale symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, namely changes to memory and other thinking skills, as well as personality changes. The group that met in Madison was made up largely of brain imaging specialists from the ADRC and the DZNE.

“By using tools such as brain imaging to follow people over time, we expect to see how combined factors such as genetics or lifestyle factors affect the development of Alzheimer’s disease or perhaps even protect against it,” explains Sterling Johnson, PhD, associate director of the Wisconsin ADRC. “We can then use sophisticated tools developed by our partners in computer science to help us use this information to understand why some people are at greater risk for dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, and even help us reduce the number of people we need to include in future clinical trials aimed at preventing or intervening in Alzheimer’s disease.”

This is the fourth face-to-face meeting between the ADRC and the DZNE. The researchers will meet again at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference taking place in London in June.