Published April 21, 2021

The National Institutes of Health has awarded neuroscience professor Mark Gluck a grant to investigate the links between Alzheimer's Disease and COVID-19, which share common immunological pathways and age-related risks.

Mark Gluck, Professor of Neuroscience at the Center for Molecular & Behavioral Neuroscience (CMBN) at the School of Arts & Sciences-Newark, has received a new grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the cognitive, neural, and immunological consequences of COVID-19 in older African Americans and how they relate to risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

With this grant, Gluck seeks to investigate the links between Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID-19, which share common immunological pathways and age-related risk. This is particularly critical for African Americans since they are known be at elevated risk for age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease, and are also currently experiencing the highest overall COVID-19 mortality rates. Understanding how COVID-19 impacts cognition, neural function, and risk for Alzheimer’s may lead to new insights that inform clinically relevant future research on how age-related decline and dysfunction within the immune system may play a causal role in Alzheimer’s.

The award from the NIH’s National Institute on Aging for $643,396 is a supplement to Gluck’s current NIH grant, “Risk Factors for Future Cognitive Decline and Alzheimer’s Disease in Older African Americans,” and is in addition to another supplement the group will use to fund a minority postdoctoral fellowship. This brings their total 2021-2022 annual award from NIH for this project to $1,432,216.

Gluck and his lab will collaborate with two leading immunologists at the Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS)/NJ Medical School on this new grant, Patricia Fitzgerald-Bocarsly, Provost of NJMS/RBHS-Newark and Professor of Pathology, and Marila Gennaro, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology. The joint award will support interdisciplinary research across the three labs – bridging neuroscience, public health, and immunology – allowing graduate students and postdoctoral fellows from both Rutgers-Newark and RBHS to expand in new directions.

In describing the study, Gluck says “Our core goal is to answer the following question: What underlying immunological mechanism links both Alzheimer’s disease and COVID-19 to common risk factors and might thus explain causal (and possibly reciprocal) links between Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID-19 severity and mortality?”

There are numerous commonalities between Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID-19.  Common risk factors for both include advanced age, hypertension, obesity, diabetes, and being African American. Older adults with Alzheimer’s, or healthy young individuals with Alzheimer’s Disease risk genes, are both at elevated risk for COVID-19 mortality. What is not known is whether the converse is also true: Will surviving COVID-19 increase future risk for Alzheimer’s Disease?

Both diseases are also known to damage the same area of the brain: the hippocampus, a key structure for encoding and storing new information. This brain region has been the focus of the Gluck Lab’s neurocomputational and cognitive neuroscience studies for the last three decades. What underlies these similarities between Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID-19? Could immune dysfunction be the common link? Although there is increasing evidence that Alzheimer’s involves disruption to the immune system, researchers do not sufficiently understand how Alzheimer’s Disease pathology and risk are related to specific processes within the immune system.

African Americans continue to suffer from high rates of COVID-19 mortality: About 3.6 times as high as the rate for white Americans. Older African Americans are particularly vulnerable to severe health consequences if they are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is not known why some older African Americans suffer far worse outcomes from COVID-19 than others, or what are the long-term health consequences of COVID-19 for African Americans.  The new study will address both knowledge gaps.

Over the coming year the lab will be recruiting older African Americans from the greater Newark area who survived COVID-19 to join our study, in the hopes to better understand the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on brain health, immunological health, and Alzheimer’s Disease. A key partner in this recruitment will be the lab’s newest clinical collaborator, Dr. Alexander Salerno, the leader of Salerno Medical Associates which has provided medical care to the Newark/East Orange communities since the 1950s. They also run a non-profit health education program, Urban Healthcare Initiative Program (UHIP), with whom the Gluck lab has partnered for several years. Their medical practice, across five local clinics, cares for about 20,000 local residents, including approximately 6,000 older African Americans— about half of whom had COVID-19 in the past year. As an early leader in the area’s response to COVID-19, they have administered COVID-19 tests to over 120,000 local residents.

A deeper understanding of the linkages between Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID-19 may result both in better treatments for long-term neurological consequences of COVID-19 as well as advances in the field of Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias. In particular, the lab’s studies could lead to a better understanding of the relationship between immune dysfunction and Alzheimer’s Disease, which, in turn, could inform future immunologically-focused clinical interventions for Alzheimer’s.

Story originally appeared in Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences-Newark.

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