0415_ek_biologygrant_th Researcher earns five-year, $1.5 million grant to study Alzheimer’s

Tyler Haughn

The National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health awarded a $1.5 million grant to a Kent State biology professor hoping to discover why Alzheimer’s disease affects women more than it does men.

Gemma Casadesus Smith, who has been an associate professor at Kent State University since 2014, said she intends to use the five-year grant to study and identify the factors that are responsible for increased susceptibility among women, as well as fund further research.

“I study the brain, and I study primarily brain aging and cognitive aging and risk factors within aging that make you more prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease,” Smith said.

Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that often goes hand-in-hand with aging, is a degenerative disease which often leads to loss of memory and important brain functions.

Smith said when women go into menopause, their ovaries stop working and this causes major changes in the brain. Menopause is a major risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, which leaves women at a higher risk.

When women no longer produce estrogen, the pituitary gland begins over-producing a different hormone, called the luteinizing hormone (LH), to compensate for the lack of estrogen present in the body. Men, on the other hand, never stop producing testosterone.

Smith focused her research on Alzheimer’s disease because if the components that actively contribute to the development of the disease can be understood, then people can reach the end of their lives cognitively and functionally coherent.

“If we can slow (Alzheimer’s disease) down by five years, you take care of 50 percent of the Alzheimer’s disease cases, because people will die before they develop it,” Smith said. “This means that they will die when they are cognitively functional.”

Aside from the genetic component, Smith said environmental factors, such as how someone treats one’s body during life, how active one’s brain stays and how nutritious one’s diet is, can either increase or decrease the chances they have of developing Alzheimer’s. Age is also a significant aspect.

“The number one risk-factor for Alzheimer’s is age,” Smith said. “By the time you’re 85, you have a 50 percent chance of developing it or having it.”

Sabina Bhatta, a neuroscience graduate student helping Smith, said she is interested in determining the role that LH plays.

“The first aim of the grant is to look at what happens when LH is manipulated, and also associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” Bhatta said.

While Bhatta works with genetic research, another neuroscience graduate student, Jeffrey Blair, said he prefers working with data.

“I was more involved in the preliminary data you need to get a grant,” Blair said.

Working with these hormones, Blair could remove animals’ ovaries to study behavioral differences in the brain.

Smith said she wants to focus on what aging processes can be manipulated so the development of Alzheimer’s disease slows down significantly and grants a better quality of life for those affected.

“Our memories make us who we are,” Smith said.

Tyler Haughn is the student health reporter, contact him at [email protected]