For decades, Alzheimer’s research has examined the disease in a common study participant: the highly educated white person. 

The disease itself is more inclusive. Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia,  disproportionately affects Black and Latino people in the U.S. But how the disease progresses in different people groups, and what those variations mean for treatment, is still misunderstood.

Answers are coming, said Sid O’Bryant, a professor and Alzheimer’s expert at The University of North Texas Health Science Center. In September, he and a team of scientists received a $150 million grant to study how Alzheimer’s disease differs among racial and ethnic groups, according to a news release.

The study is the nation’s most comprehensive look at the biology of Alzheimer’s among the three largest people groups in the U.S.: white, Black and Mexican American. 

“This award and project are nothing short of a bio behavioral ‘moonshot’ program to understand, alleviate and eventually solve the origins, pain and suffering of Alzheimer’s disease,” Brian Gladue, executive vice president for research and innovation at the Health Science Center, said in the release. 

The grant, from the National Institute on Aging, expands research already in progress. 

O’Bryant and his colleagues at the Institute for Translational Research began what would become the Health and Aging Brain Study in 2012. 

Sid O’Bryant explaining his study as though he were speaking to a sixth-grade class. (Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

The initial research focused on white and Latino people 50 years and older in North Texas. In 2020, the Health Science Center provided funding to enroll Black people in the study. Nearly 3,000 people have enrolled. 

The newest grant will further diversify the participants. O’Bryant and his team plan to enroll 500 more people ages 30 to 49 from each racial and ethnic group. The younger cohort may offer insight into prevention. 

Preliminary findings justify the expansion, he told the Report. For example, the research has already helped complicate a long-held assumption about the disease: that the buildup of amyloid, a protein in the brain, is a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s. 

Amyloid does serve as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease — at least, it does for a majority of white people with the diagnosis, O’Bryant said. But the study’s early findings indicate that Black and Mexican Americans with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis are less likely to have amyloid. 

An Alzheimer’s drug that lowers amyloid wouldn’t work for them, he said. Instead, they may need a different drug, or perhaps multiple drugs, tailored precisely to their brains — a method of health care called precision medicine

“Everyone deserves treatments,” he said. “Everyone deserves to understand and know what’s going on.”

O’Bryant and his team are working to develop trust in Black and Mexican American communities to encourage further enrollment. They meet with local leaders and show up at community events.

“We also are here for the long run, so trust builds with time,” he said. “So we foster it and grow it slowly and ensure that we always keep our word to the community.”

Interested in participating in the study? 

Submit this interest form or call the Institute for Translational Research at (817)735-2963.

Study participants undergo a series of interviews, memory screens, lab tests and brain scans twice every five years. The research is comprehensive; O’Bryant wants to know how a person’s environment and health affect the brain. 

“You cannot study amyloid in the brain without putting it in the context of the person’s diabetes, heart disease,” he said. “But also, where did they live? Where do they come from? Etc.” 

He hopes the study’s findings broaden the framework in which people think about and treat Alzheimer’s, he said. He likens the research to the Framingham Heart Study, an ongoing, decades-old observational study that has clarified how heart disease works and what causes it. 

“This study will change the world.” 

Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her at alexis.allison@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Alexis Allison

Alexis Allison covers health for the Fort Worth Report. When she can, she'll slip in an illustration or two. Allison is a former high school English teacher and hopes her journalism is likewise educational....