How Adults With Down Syndrome Are Helping Us Learn More About Alzheimer’s

Nov 30, 2015

Experts believe we may be able to learn more about Alzheimer's by studying adults with Down syndrome who have developed it.
Credit Alyssa L. Miller / Flickr

Experts hope to learn more about Alzheimer's disease by studying adults who suffer from it and also have Down syndrome.  

The National Institute of Aging (NIA) is funding a five-year study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as with three other partners, in the hope of exploring the development of the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s. They'll also be looking at cognitive function in adults with Down syndrome.

“We are looking at a range of different possible biomarkers that could help us assess risk, in terms of figuring out who might develop Alzheimer’s, and biomarkers that might be used in the future to help us assess the outcome of possible interventions,” said Ben Handen, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and co-principal investigator.

According to Handen, adults with Down syndrome tend to be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and develop it at a younger age than the general population because they have three copies of a gene on the 21st chromosome.

“One of the genes on that chromosome, APP, is the precursor to something called beta-amyloid,” said Handen. “It is thought that beta-amyloid, which begins to deposit in the brain, is one of the pre-cursors, one of the important biomarkers, for developing Alzheimer’s.”

Despite having a higher likelihood for Alzheimer’s, Handen says cognitive decline is not that different among adults with Down syndrome and the general population.

“In many ways it’s very similar, but it is a little harder to assess because we have to have a really good baseline for what their functioning level is.”

Handen hopes the information learned from the study will help with the treatment of Alzheimer’s as a whole.

“Because we don’t really know who’s going to develop Alzheimer’s in the general population, to find a population like adults with Down syndrome who are at much greater risk, it’s a much more effective group of individuals to study," he said. 

Other institutions involved with effort include the University of Wisconsin, Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix and Cambridge University.