Researchers receive more than $ 53 million to study the role of white matter lesions in dementia

Newswise – A $ 53.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will help brain scientists, including a researcher at the University of Texas at Houston (UTHealth) Health Science Center, study the role of injuries accidental white matter, or WML, in dementia among different people with cognitive impairments.

The study is being conducted by the UC Davis School of Medicine in partnership with UTHealth. It is a new and fundamental part of the NIH’s Vascular Contributions to Cognitive Impairment and Dementia (VCID) research program.

The principal co-investigator is Myriam Fornage, PhD, professor of genetics at the Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. Fornage is one of the leading researchers on the molecular genetics of cerebrovascular diseases.

“Our team has been at the forefront of genetic studies on WML for two decades,” Fornage said. “Through the genetic risk profiles that we will develop, we will have the opportunity to apply what we have discovered and improve the accuracy with which we identify patients with a higher a priori probability of cognitive impairment and dementia. At the same time, we will contribute new resources for dementia research everywhere. “

The principal investigator is Charles DeCarli, MD, professor of neurology, director of UC Davis’ Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and the nation’s foremost expert on the role of subcortical cerebrovascular disease in cognitive decline. In recent years, DeCarli has received national and state research grants in excess of $ 33 million.

“The size of this NIH grant underscores the national importance and research leadership of UC Davis’ Center for Alzheimer’s Disease,” said Allison Brashear, MD, neurologist at the nationally known UC Davis School of Medicine. for his pioneering research on movement disorders. “This multi-year research award will enable us to make groundbreaking advances in our understanding and treatment of dementia.”

WMLs occur when tissue deep in the brain is damaged, often due to changes in small blood vessels. They are common and often found in MRI brain scans of people who have concerns about their brain health.

Why or how WMLs are associated with cognitive decline is not known. The questions are about whether certain characteristics of WML, such as size and location, make them major risk factors for dementia. It is also unclear how comorbidities – additional health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes – along with WML increase the risk of cognitive decline. Defining these connections is essential to improve outcomes for the 5.7 million people in the United States with cognitive impairment and dementia.

Historical research by DeCarli and Fornage is expected to answer these questions and lead to standards for the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of individuals with WML-related cognitive problems.

“This scholarship gives us the opportunity to study WML from every angle and to definitively understand their role in age- and disease-related cognitive decline and future dementia risk,” DeCarli said. “It’s the culmination of our three decades of research that has given us great insights, but no definitive answers yet.”

DeCarli and Fornage will conduct a study of WML patients on MRI and concerns about cognitive symptoms, but no dementia diagnosis. It will be the first large population-based study of the long-term effects of these injuries on thinking and the risk of dementia.

Starting in September 2021, study participants will be recruited at UC Davis Health and at least 10 other locations in the U.S. They will come from a variety of backgrounds, so researchers can identify how WML results differ by race, ethnicity, and gender. better representing those at risk of dementia.

“Our ultimate goals are to develop a ‘risk profile’ that identifies the likelihood of WML-related cognitive impairment and dementia over the course of five to ten years and to identify clear targets for interventional studies,” DeCarli said.

Resources to carry out all dementia research

Another interesting part of the grant, according to the researchers, is the possibility of funding further studies aimed at refining diagnostic and predictive tools and methods for dementia. The results will improve dementia research and clinical care around the world.

Data and samples from these studies will be shared with the wider research community via the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center at the University of Washington and the National Centralized Repository for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Demmentias at Indiana University. The images will be shared through the Neuro Imaging Laboratory at the University of Southern California.

DeCarli and Fornage also participate in the MarkVCID Consortium, supported by the NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The consortium was established in 2016 to identify biological markers of vascular cognitive impairment and dementia.

This award is co-sponsored by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the NIH National Institute on Aging through grant 1U19NS120384.

The Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine (IMM) for the prevention of human disease is part of the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston (UTHealth). IMM focuses on the study and prevention of diseases at the genetic, cellular and molecular levels using DNA and protein technologies and animal models. IMM is part of the Texas Therapeutics Institute, a multi-institutional collaboration that encourages drug discovery. For more information, visit

UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center is one of only 31 research centers designated and funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Aging. The center’s goal is to translate research advances into better diagnosis and treatment for patients, focusing on the long-term goal of finding a way to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s and other dementias. The center also allows researchers to study the effects of the disease on a uniquely diverse population. For more information, visit

  • Adapted from a UC Davis press release.


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