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Study that seeks to prevent Alzheimer's is recruiting volunteers in Pittsburgh

A human brain affected by Alzheimer's disease.
David Duprey
This Oct. 7, 2003 file photo shows a closeup of a human brain affected by Alzheimer's disease, on display at the Museum of Neuroanatomy at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y.

There is no way to prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, but a large-scale study that’s recruiting research participants in Allegheny County is attempting to change that.

The University of Pittsburgh is one of more than 70 sites across the United States and Canada collaborating on the AHEAD study, which targets amyloid plaque — a sticky, extracellular deposit in the grey matter of the brain.

Amyloid buildup is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. It starts forming decades before a person experiences memory loss or behavior changes. The medication lecanemab has produced modest but positive results as it removes amyloid, which then slows the progression of Alzheimer’s, though it doesn’t heal the damage already done.

AHEAD researchers are trying to get ahead of Alzheimer’s by giving lecanemab to people who have some amyloid deposits but no clinical symptoms of the disease. Study volunteers can be as young as 55.

“The idea and opportunity to intervene before symptoms even manifest, before any memories are lost, is just revolutionary,” said Jennifer Lingler, director of outreach, recruitment and engagement at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Pitt’s School of Medicine.

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This study is a logical step in the search for an Alzheimer’s cure, said Huntington Potter, the director of the University of Colorado Alzheimer's and Cognition Center. Potter, who is not affiliated with the study, said AHEAD could produce exciting results — but he notes that the side effects of lecanemab can include brain bleeding and swelling.

“In all of these studies we’re looking for total safety, if at all possible,” said Potter.

AHEAD aims to enroll some 1,400 participants across all sites. People of all races and ethnicities are encouraged to apply, though researchers are focusing outreach efforts in Black and Latino communities, as these Americans are up to two times as likely as whites to develop Alzheimer’s and related dementias.

Black and Latino volunteers are underrepresented in clinical trials. Some people don’t want to participate due to a history of racism and mistreatment by medical science, such as the Tuskegee Study: In the 1930s, the U.S. Public Health Service infected Black men in Alabama with syphilis without telling them or getting their consent.

It can take time for researchers to build enough trust with communities so that people are willing to participate in a study, said Melita Terry, the senior community engagement coordinator for Pitt’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. Those who do volunteer know they may not reap the benefits of the research, though their children or grandchildren might.

“For us to really, truly make advancement, you really need a diverse population, a diverse sampling,” said Terry. “We know that if it’s not good for everyone, it really isn’t good.”

AHEAD is being funded by the National Institutes of Health and Eisai Inc., a Japanese pharmaceutical company.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.