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Washington University in St. Louis Receives $7 Million to Research Black Americans’ Increased Risk of Alzheimer’s

Scientific analysis of Alzheimer's disease in hospital, conceptual image

With more than $7 million in new grant funding, two research teams at Washington University in St. Louis are tackling the complex web of issues that contribute to Black Americans’ increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Both projects, funded by the National Institute on Aging, aim to help determine how genetic, behavioral and cultural factors combine to affect disease risk and incidence in the Black community.

Joyce Balls-Berry, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology, is passionate about her community and wants to ensure Black and other minority populations are represented in Alzheimer’s research. Her father was a health commissioner for East St. Louis, and Balls-Berry grew up in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. She sees her work as continuing his legacy. “As a Black woman scientist, I’ve often noticed that there aren’t enough of us at the research table in terms of deciding on the science and how we can connect directly to communities we want to gain insight from,” she says.

The $3.4 million grant awarded to Balls-Berry’s research team funds the creation of a registry of 2,000 new volunteers from historically underrepresented groups to participate in upcoming Alzheimer’s disease studies. With the initiative, dubbed the COEQUAL Registry (Creating Opportunities to Increase Health Equity and Equality for Persons at Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias), she hopes to construct a long-term resource to help increase minority research participation.

“We’ve seen that the Black community is often not approached or is approached in inappropriate ways for our cultural stance,” Balls-Berry says. “And once we engage Black people (who then participate in studies), how do we retain them?”

By reaching out to community members and health care providers, Balls-Berry aims first to determine exactly what the Black community in the greater St. Louis area knows about Alzheimer’s disease and research opportunities in general. She also will assess available health promotion materials, using a National Institute of Aging framework, to gauge whether they are culturally relevant.

“Then we’ll build the research registry and make it more than just a database – it will be more interactive,” she says. Looking to the future, Balls-Berry says: “I would hope we have, from a research stance, more understanding of the cultural relevance of why communities of color will or will not engage in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia research, and also what we can do to keep them active in this research process.”

Meanwhile, Balls-Berry’s colleagues – Darrell Hudson, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at the Brown School, and Ganesh Babulal, Ph.D., OTD, assistant professor of neurology – will be using a $3.7 million grant to investigate risk factors for cognitive decline among Black Americans. Their study is titled “ARCHES: Aging Research Characterizing Health Equity via Social determinants.”

“We already have biomarker studies looking at the proteins in the brain, which provide precious insight into the patho-physiological process,” Babulal says. “Since we know that African Americans are at about twice the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, you would think that the biomarkers would show higher levels, but they typically have lower levels compared to non-Hispanic white [individuals]. So what we want to look at are the social determinants of health.”

Although genes and behaviors contribute to overall risk, environmental and social influences are responsible for up to 80 percent of an individual’s health outcomes, he notes. Access to health care and the ability to manage stress largely depend on one’s community and resources.

Babulal and Hudson plan to use blood samples to study biological markers in relation to self-reported stress, discrimination and depression in 300 participants. “These are pieces that are really important to study to see how they might increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” Babulal says.

The team will draw on the NIA Health Disparities Research Framework, which identifies environmental, sociocultural, behavioral and biological dimensions of health. A community advisory board will help recruit participants from various ZIP codes and age groups.

“Many studies have compared one minoritized group to another or whites,” Babulal says. “We’re just looking within the Black American cohort to understand the heterogeneity or diversity within that sample. Only once we have a more profound understanding within the sample can we do a true comparison with other ethnic groups.”

Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center, 4488 Forest Park, Suite 101, St. Louis, 314-286-2683, knightadrc.wustl.edu

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Connie, a native of St. Charles and graduate of the MU School of Journalism, is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to print and online publications for clients throughout the region. She enjoys travel, hiking, kayaking and drinking good coffee

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