The local Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Collaboration has raised more than $125,000 in the last six years to support Alzheimer’s research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC).
According to group founder Marv Welstead, 60 percent of everything the group collects in its Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Fund—established through the Fremont Area Community Foundation—goes toward funding research at UNMC. Another 40 percent goes to local, Fremont-based programming and educating caregivers about Alzheimer’s. That includes events like monthly support groups, which provide access to UNMC nurses and staff.
“Our goal is threefold,” Welstead said. “One, make the public aware of Alzheimer’s and two caregiver education, caregivers, you know, taking care of their patients at home. And the third one is for getting involved in research.”
The group has a lot of support from the local community and there are several fundraising opportunities coming up, Welstead said. HyVee is launching a campaign asking shoppers to round their grocery bills up to the nearest dollar, with that additional amount going to the fund. That will run from today to Sept. 22, Welstead said. Panda Express will be donating 20 percent of its sales to the Alzheimer’s Fund. The Memory Farmer’s Market, held each Thursday through November, also donates its proceeds to the group’s fund.
The group’s annual “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” is also planned for Sept. 22 at the Midland University Wikert Event Center starting at 9 a.m.
In terms of research, UNMC is exploring several of frontiers in Alzheimer’s prevention and identification, says Dr. Dan Murman, director of UNMC’s Department of Neurological Sciences. The funding from Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Collaboration doesn’t necessarily fund the entirety of the studies—but it helps. In some cases, the early funding can lead to more federal funding.
“They’re often kind of pilot studies, beginning to get research to try to get additional funding in the future,” Murman said. “But we’ve been very successful.”
The fund has supported the building up of a registry of people interested in research that could be recruited for studies.
There are two trials that are currently looking for people that have normal memory capabilities but who might have an increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s. One is based on a scan that shows early changes in the build-up of amyloid plaque—a substance in the brain that’s linked to Alzheimer’s. The other is based on the presence of a particular genetic make up.
These trials are focused more on the prevention of Alzheimer’s symptom onset in subjects who have not yet experienced symptoms or who are in the mild stages, early after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Murman said.
“We’re learning that certainly to attack this amyloid plaque and amyloid protein, the earlier the better,” he said. “We think we’ll have more success at least with that target, the amyloid plaque and the amyloid protein, then if we wait till people have more moderate to severe symptoms. It seems like we can’t make a difference at that point.”
Scans of amyloid plaque show that build ups of the substance happen probably 10 to 15 years before any memory loss symptoms.
UNMC has also had support from the fund in trying to find new “biomarkers” that would better mark the Alzheimer’s process. There has been work looking at the effectiveness of tests such as a retinal imaging scan that looks at the back of the eye that can possibly indicate degeneration in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s.
The Fremont fund helped UNMC buy an optical topography machine that could analyze eyes in this way. It cost $65,000, and the Fremont Alzheimer’s Collaboration put forth $30,000 toward the machine.
Other studies have been looking at how MRIs and technology that measures magnetic waves on the surface of the brain.
“Both those are new technologies and new techniques to kind of find some of the earliest changes that might be a marker to help us understand if someone’s on the path towards getting Alzheimer’s disease,” Murman said.
And another frontier of research that has been supported by the fund is looking at “transcranial magnetic stimulation,” referred to as TMS. It uses magnets to try and enhance or improve memory circuits in the brain by stimulating the relevant parts of the brain.
“TMS is approved for treatment in depression now—you can stimulate parts of the brain to kind of improve people’s refractory depression,” Murman said. “Much like exercising your body, can you exercise those memory circuits and make them work better?”
For next year, Murman plans to propose a study that looks at a combination of many of these areas, he said. That too, would be funded in part by Welstead’s group. By funding recruitment and early parts of research, the Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Collaboration plays a role in helping UNMC make a case for additional funding to keep going.
Welstead, whose wife suffered from Alzheimer’s, is optimistic about the work that’s been going on.
“One doctor said we’ve learned more about Alzheimer’s research in the last five years than in the last 50 years,” Welstead said. “That’s why I’m optimistic.”
One genetic trial is currently looking for people between 55 and 75 who do not have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and who carry a specific gene associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Interested participants can sign up with the national GeneMatch Program, which will send you a cheek swab kit in order to add your genetic makeup to its secure database. The program will contact you about studies that you may be eligible for. Go to www.endALZnow.org/GeneMatch for more information.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described a fundraiser hosted by HyVee. The fundraiser is asking shoppers to round their bills up to the nearest dollar, with the additional amount going toward the Fremont Area Alzheimer's Fund.