A doctor at the University of New Mexico is researching a degenerative memory disease that affects millions with the help of a $150,000 research grant this June during Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month.

Dr. Benjamin Clark is an assistant professor in UNM’s psychology department. He is using a grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to understand how head direction cells — a type of neuron in the hippocampus that facilitates navigation — are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

“We are trying to understand how head direction cells breakdown in the disease and how the brain produces that type of brain cell,” Clark said.

He described the disease beginning as a “two-hit” combo.

“Plaques, like clumps of protein fragments, that build on the outside brain cells alter communication, and tangles do the same thing, but on the inside of the cell,” Clark said.

Clark said a lack of communication from cells that work with location memory can lead to “spatial disorientation.” Spatial disorientation in Alzheimer’s is when a person has a hard time navigating and loses their sense of direction.

“It can be one of the earliest symptoms in Alzheimer’s disease,” Clark said, adding that the symptom can be subtle at first.

Clark said he began to get involved in Alzheimer’s research around 2012 and has experienced what it can do to a person.

“We’ve had family members affected by Alzheimer’s disease and it hits close to home,” he said.

He said he hopes his research will provide answers to how the brain produces head direction cells because there is a increased need in it since the baby boomer generation is getting older and the incident rate will “skyrocket” in the next 20 years.

Clark said he suggests talking to a general practitioner if you suspect you or someone you know has memory issues.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are some lifestyle changes that can decelerate the disease’s progression substantially, according to Dr. Gary Rosenberg, the director of UNM’s Memory and Aging Center.

“People who are educated exercise, and because they exercise, they eat well and it all plays into each other,” Rosenberg said. “This is what’s called preventive medicine.”

Rosenberg said raising awareness about Alzheimer’s is half the battle, and if people can understand how it works when the disease begins, then they will be in a better situation.

“Even if you get into your 60s, (if) you begin exercising, getting your blood pressure under control, you stop smoking, lose weight, get socially involved, you can slow the process down,” Rosenberg said.

Supporting researchers is critical for the front line battle against Alzheimer’s, said Chris Chaffin, the media director for Alzheimer’s Association, New Mexico chapter.

“We understand that research is the essential key that can change this looming public health crisis, and avert some of the destruction it promises if left unchecked,” Chaffin said.

According to a pamphlet from the Aging and Memory Center at UNM, Alzheimer’s can “destroy memory and the ability to learn, reason, make judgements, communicate and carry out daily tasks;” some symptoms of Alzheimer’s Dementia include:

  • Difficulty recalling recent events or conversations
  • Not recognizing or knowing the names of family members
  • Frequent pauses and substitutions when finding words
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Repetitive questioning
  • Odd or inappropriate behavior
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks

According to a 2018 Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures Sheet provided by the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

The fact sheet also reported 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s; that number is expected to rise to 14 million by 2050 — a more than 140 percent increase.

Resources such as dementia training, support and respite care can be found at the Alzheimer’s Association of New Mexico at (505) 266-4473 or online at www.alz.org/newmexico.

Anthony Jackson is a freelance reporter with the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @TonyAnjackson.