Oregon Health & Science University researchers Tuesday were awarded a $1.9 million National Institutes of Health grant for work that someday might predict who will get Alzheimer’s disease.

An estimated 5.2 million U.S. citizens are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which typically begins with memory loss and progresses to severe dementia. While there is no cure for the disease, which is the most common form of dementia, scientists in recent years have been looking at ways to learn which patients will be stricken before signs of dementia are obvious.

Currently, physicians rely on three-dimensional imaging of the brain to detect the amyloid protein, which can form plague inside the brain. Increased amyloid plaque can indicate the potential for dementia and Alzheimer’s.

But some people who become demented never show amyloid buildup in their brain. And many people with amyloid buildup never suffer Alzheimer’s.

The NIH grant will allow OHSU researchers to explore another potential predictor of Alzheimer’s: biomarkers in spinal fluid. Specifically, the research will be looking at molecules called extracellular RNA that are involved in communication between cells. Researchers are hoping to find a relationship between the level of these molecules in spinal fluid and the early development of Alzheimer’s.

Potentially, the OHSU work could also help identify molecular pathways that might help in the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s.

The NIH grant is part of $17 million the NIH granted to 24 research projects nationwide looking at extracellular RNA.

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