Can the length of genetic material be used to predict the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease?
Marta Crous-Bou, Ph.D.
Barcelona beta Brain Research Center
Each cell in the body contains genetic material (DNA) arranged in structures called chromosomes. At the ends of each chromosome are “caps” called telomeres; these caps get shorter as people age. Studies have shown that shorter telomeres are associated with decreased life expectancies and increased risk of several chronic diseases. Since Alzheimer’s disease risk increases with aging, researchers are investigating whether shorter telomeres (as a marker of biological age) are associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It is not yet clear whether shorter telomeres are directly involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Marta Crous-Bou believes that shorter telomeres could make nerve cells in the brain more vulnerable to damage.
Dr. Crous-Bou and colleagues plan to examine more than 2,700 cognitively unimpaired individuals who are part of a larger study of individuals with Alzheimer’s and their family members. These family members may be at increased risk for Alzheimer’s due to being directly related to someone with Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Crous-Bou’s study participants have volunteered to share information about their family history of Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers will determine their telomere length to evaluate performance on thinking and memory tests, perform brain scans, and calculate levels of biological markers (for Alzheimer’s risk) in blood. The researchers will determine whether people who have shorter telomeres have impaired thinking and memory, nerve cell loss and other structural changes in the brain, and higher levels of Alzheimer’s disease biological markers. Finally, Dr. Crous-Bou will collect all of this data again at follow-up visits 3-6 years later, to see if shortened telomeres are associated with these changes.
If successful, the study will outline how using telomere length may help inform risk reduction strategies and also help predict who is at greater risk for Alzheimer’s. With early detection, when we have new therapies we will be in a better position to know who needs treatment at the earliest time point.
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