Wednesday,
December 4, 2019

Wednesday,
December 4, 2019

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Team Awarded $2.9 Million To Study Socioeconomic Ties to Alzheimer’s

Dec. 2, 2019

Researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity (CVL) have received a $2.9 million grant to continue their investigation into links between socioeconomic disadvantage and susceptibility to cognitive decline.

Dr. Gagan Wig (from left) poses with members of his lab at the Center for Vital Longevity: Micaela Chan MS’12, PhD’16; Claudia Carreno MS’17 and Phillip Agres MS’16.  

The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), provided funding for the project, led by Dr. Gagan Wig, associate professor of cognition and neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Focusing on middle-aged adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, researchers hope to pinpoint structural features of the adult brain that could predict later symptoms of degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

This initiative builds upon Wig’s previous work published in 2018 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences linking a person’s environment to the way their brain is organized.

“Last year, we found that lower socioeconomic status is associated with less-organized brain networks, which we know relates to poor memory, and that there is individual variation in this risk,” Wig said. “In the new study, we will examine this variation by tracking individual brain networks and Alzheimer’s disease genetic risk, along with changes in measures of health, environment and lifestyles.”

Dr. Denise Park, director of research for the CVL, UT Regents’ Research Scholar, and Distinguished University Chair in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is a co-investigator on the study. Also joining the team as co-investigators are Dr. Sherwood Brown, vice chairman of clinical research and chief of clinical neuroscience in the Department of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center; and Dr. Jennifer Gonzalez, senior director of population health at the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Dallas.

Our earlier work allows us to say that … there is a correlation between socioeconomic status and brain function and anatomy. Now, we plan to examine some of the specific features which characterize aspects of an individual’s health, lifestyle and environment to learn which have the largest impact on brain and cognitive aging.

Dr. Gagan Wig, associate professor of cognition and neuroscience in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Members of Wig’s lab involved in the current study include postdoctoral researcher Micaela Chan MS’12, PhD’16, lead author of the 2018 PNAS study; cognition and neuroscience doctoral student Phillip Agres MS’16, who was also an author on the earlier study; and lab manager Claudia Carreno MS’17.

“Even with what our previous study revealed, it was unclear which of the many factors that vary with socioeconomic status are driving the observed relationships with the brain,” Chan said. “The new study’s approach will allow us to determine whether certain biological or lifestyle factors — such as stress, sleep, diet, socialization, mental stimulation or physical activity — are driving how brain network organization and cognition differ across individuals.”

The study will track approximately 150 participants of low-to-middle socioeconomic status (SES) between 40 and 65 years old for four years.

“This segment of the population is at higher risk for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease compared to higher SES individuals,” Wig said. “Yet they have been largely understudied in brain research.”

The researchers hope to identify which features of an individual’s environment are most influential in cognitive decline.

“Doing so could also help us understand why some people age relatively gracefully while others are more vulnerable to cognitive decline,” Wig said. “Our earlier work allows us to say that, across a broad range of middle-aged adults, there is a correlation between socioeconomic status and brain function and anatomy. Now, we plan to examine some of the specific features which characterize aspects of an individual’s health, lifestyle and environment to learn which have the largest impact on brain and cognitive aging.”

The team plans to begin enrolling participants next spring.

Media Contact: Stephen Fontenot, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4405, [email protected]
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected]

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