Two University of Arizona researchers need the public’s help with an ongoing study of factors that protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, and affects an estimated five million Americans.
The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age. And the MindCrowd study aims to pinpoint the interactions of behavior, genetics and health that counteract the negative effects of aging.
MindCrowd was created by Matt Huentelman of the Translational Genomics Institute (TGen) in Phoenix. As part of the study, members of the public over the age of 18 are asked to take a 10-minute online crowd-sourced test.
UA researchers Elizabeth Glisky and Lee Ryan developed the test, which has a goal of one million participants.
“We had some people in their 80s who did fantastically well, said Ryan, a neuropsychologist who is head of the UA department of psychology.
“These people are of interest,” said Glisky, a UA psychologist and past department head who teaches courses in memory, memory disorders and in cognitive aging.
The Star sat down with Glisky and Ryan last week to talk about Alzheimer’s disease, memory impairment and the MindCrowd study. The following are excerpts from the interview:
Can lifestyle affect a person’s likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease?
Ryan: We know that when you are healthy and you eat well and you exercise, control your hypertension, that you have a lower risk for Alzheimer’s. But we don’t know if there is some magic combination that would prevent it from happening.
Will doing crosswords or Sudoku puzzles help?
Glisky: When you focus on one little thing like doing crossword puzzles —it’s not going to help you with anything but doing crossword puzzles. This is in some sense counterintuitive to some people.
Ryan: I do Sudoku every morning.
Glisky: There’s nothing wrong with Sudoku and crossword puzzles. But if that’s all you did every day it would probably be a negative.
Ryan: I bet it would. Instead of just doing these puzzles, it’s going out and having new experiences and learning new things.
What about computerized brain training games?
Ryan: There’s no evidence they are beneficial. They can be very expensive as well and people are pinning their hopes on that when they should be out playing tennis, socializing, having coffee. Caffeine is good for your brain.
About 57,000 people have taken the MindCrowd test. How long will the study go on?
Ryan: It will be going on for another few years at least. The website is in the process of being translated into 10 different languages, so we are hoping that will give us a big boost.
What happens in Phase Two?
Ryan: We have about 100 questions — more in-depth information about lifestyle, health information, family histories, their occupation, a lot of different things.
One of the critical things here is to get DNA from large numbers of people and find out the other genetic components we don’t know about yet. They will be asked whether, if we sent them a kit, would they send it back and give us their DNA. It’s a very simple saliva sample.
Glisky: We will be trying to pull out a subset of people who live in Arizona where we can get people to come in and do neuroimaging.
What is TGen’s role?
Ryan: This was Matt Huentelman’s idea. He’s the geneticist. He came to us and he needed someone to develop the tests.
Glisky: Matt’s interest was in getting a large enough sample and enough DNA to really say something about genetics.
What is the age range you are looking for?
Ryan: You have to be at least 18. We don’t have an upper age limit.
Glisky: It’s harder to make conclusions based on the smaller numbers. Over 80 it’s smaller.
Is there any demographic that is underrepresented?
Ryan: The very old.
Would you like more of that age group?
Ryan: Absolutely. We want to find them.
What is the ultimate goal?
Ryan: We want to understand the combination of genetic, lifestyle and health factors that drive risk for Alzheimer’s disease, but are also protective.
If people take the test, how should they regard the results?
Ryan: It’s just a single test. By itself it’s not predictive of anything. We do know that the test is very sensitive to aging, and that is one of the reasons why we chose it.