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Every second, information whizzes through your brain at up to 268 miles per hour as your 86 billion neurons work together to help you think, remember and interact with the world. But for the 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, this efficient coordination erodes into disarray as tangled proteins multiply and neurons shrivel, causing the brain to shrink.  

As the leading cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s takes a devastating toll on individuals and families and is the seventh leading cause of U.S. deaths. Texas A&M University researchers seek to better understand the disease’s roots in the ultimate pursuit of a cure. 

Poor sleep may play a role. 

Dr. Emet Schneiderman  
Professor of Biomedical Sciences & Director of the Sleep Research Program at the School of Dentistry
During a good night’s sleep, your body removes the toxic proteins that accumulate daily in your brain. But evidence suggests that people with conditions like sleep apnea, which disrupts nighttime breathing, have difficulty achieving this deep, pre-REM sleep stage essential for a healthy mind, increasing their risk for dementia. “Promoting good sleep may be one of the most important preventative factors for good brain health,” said Dr. Emet Schneiderman, director of the School of Dentistry’s Sleep Research Program. 

In a recent study, he found that participants with Alzheimer’s had unhealthier breathing rates during sleep. The study demonstrated that a special oral device similar to a bite guard could help patients breathe—and therefore sleep—better. This simple change improved brain function for individuals with mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to Alzheimer’s.

“These devices are a non-pharmaceutical, non-invasive way to make a difference in people’s lives and maybe prevent dementia,” Schneiderman said, “and that is tremendously exciting.” 

As for how you can catch quality zzz’s, Schneiderman advises sticking to a consistent sleep schedule and avoiding caffeine in the evening and screen time soon before bed. If you snore, feel tired during the day, and have additional risk factors like obesity and high blood pressure, consider asking your doctor about your chances of sleep apnea. Your brain will thank you! 

Genes factor in. 

Dr. Shuiwang Ji 
Presidential Impact Fellow, Department of Computer Science & Engineering 

The human body contains approximately 30,000 genes that direct every aspect of our physical characteristics. Dr. Shuiwang Ji hopes they also hold answers for Alzheimer’s. Drawing on his machine learning expertise, the College of Engineering professor is employing artificial intelligence to search for genetic markers related to the disease. His study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will use technology to analyze patterns between genetic information and brain scans from healthy and Alzheimer’s-affected individuals.  

Although the disease’s origins cannot be reduced to one factor, genes play a role, particularly in the small percentage of early-onset cases. However, scientists still don’t understand all the genes involved or the full extent of their influence. “The brain is hugely complex, so uncertainties abound about what causes Alzheimer’s,” Ji explained. “We hope to identify the genes responsible as the first step in creating an eventual cure.” 

As more Americans develop the disease, Ji believes research will become even more essential. “The cost of care for Alzheimer’s patients is exponential,” he explained. “The current investment in Alzheimer’s research is just a fraction compared to the unfortunate cost of the disease.” 

Stroke could contribute. 

Dr. Farida Sohrabji 
Regents Professor & Department Head, Neuroscience and Experimental Therapeutics  
Holder of the John and Maurine Cox Endowed Chair 

Approximately two-thirds of Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are women. To understand why, Dr. Farida Sohrabji is studying the connection between dementia and another condition that disproportionately affects women: stroke. “Looking at the long-term effects of stroke, we see neurological changes consistent with dementia,” she explained. “Examining this relationship can help us understand Alzheimer’s and identify therapies to reduce cognitive impairment after a stroke.” 

The School of Medicine professor has also turned her attention to the digestive system as another possible puzzle piece. When a stroke occurs, it not only damages the brain but also the intestines; in turn, damage to the gut can release toxins that can impact the brain. In a recent study, Sohrabji found that drugs that improve the gut as well as intestinal stem cell therapy can drastically reduce the effects of stroke on cognition and learning. “Our findings suggest you could repair the brain by repairing another organ: the gut,” she said. “That’s an exciting possibility because the gut is much more accessible than the brain.” 

Sohrabji’s work is supported by the Janell and Joe Marek ’57 Fund for Alzheimer’s Research, which Joe Marek ’57 created after his wife developed the disease that later claimed her life. “Alzheimer’s is a cruel and debilitating disease, and there’s no hope because there’s no effective treatment,” Marek said. “I hope my modest contribution plays some small role in developing a cure.” 

Want to support faculty at the forefront of Alzheimer’s research? Contact Senior Director of Development David Boggan '79 at the bottom of this page. 

  • David Boggan '79

  • Senior Director of Development
  • Texas A&M Health
  • Call: 979.436.0811

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