COLA awarded $50 million towards Alzheimer’s research by National Institute on Aging

Ali Juell, Senior News Reporter

The National Institute on Aging awarded researchers in UT’s College of Liberal Arts a $50 million grant to study education’s effects on Alzheimer’s and related dementia over the next five years —  the largest research grant ever gifted to the college, according to the grant’s announcement.

UT will work with numerous universities across the nation, including Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin, who will contact a cohort of individuals previously studied in 1972 to measure their long-term cognitive changes. Chandra Muller, a sociology professor, will act as the lead coordinator for UT’s involvement in the research.

“If you meet anyone on the street, someone in their close orbit has had an experience with dementia —  it affects us all,” Muller said. “What I want to do, and what my collaborators want to do, is figure out which aspects of education affect what aspects of the brain.”

The National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 measured various aspects including standardized test scores, coursework and school population demographics of 14,000 American high school seniors across the country in addition to tracking their trajectory following graduation until 1986. 

Through cognitive testing, wellness exams and in-home interviews, Muller said working with the cohort’s surviving members will provide a unique opportunity to determine the participants’ cognitive changes from high school to their 70s and the long-term impact of their educational experiences. Muller said 500 participants will also be given brain scans. 

“There are some people who have lots of indicators that they should have dementia, they should be having problems functioning, and they’re not — they’re fine,” Muller said. “Then the question is: Well, why are they doing okay? And many people think the answer is that education gives a cognitive reserve and a cognitive resilience to our brains. It actually changes your brain and makes it so that your brain can compensate.”

Sociology professor Mark Hayward said he’ll work with Muller to measure the relationship between education and the risk of Alzheimer’s while also examining changes within the participants’ brain structures.

“(Education and other environmental factors) are really sentinel kinds of exposures in people’s lives that become embodied in their brains,” Hayward said. “As time goes along, we’ll learn more about them and we’ll learn whether we can actually intervene and change things.”

Amelia Karraker, the National Institute on Aging’s program official, said the institute is heavily invested in research within this field, and the study provides a chance to answer a number of questions still surrounding education’s relationship with brain health.

“A major priority of ours is to support research that improves the lives of all individuals,” Karraker said. “This is a diverse cohort, and we’re hoping that the study will produce knowledge that leads to potential interventions to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease-related dementia.”

By working on a cross-disciplinary research project like this, Muller said she looks forward to working with a diverse team, including biologists and even undergraduate students.

“A project like this brings together people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Muller said. “It brings together a group of people to work on a common goal … It’s more fun than you could ever imagine because you’re always learning and you’re always pushing yourself.”