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  • Posted Tuesday September 28, 2021

TGen part of $60 million grant awarded to UArizona to create national Precision Aging Network

MindCrowd, created by TGen and UArizona to track brain health, will help link the public to the new Precision Aging Network

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Sept. 28, 2021 — The Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen), an affiliate of City of Hope, will use its MindCrowd website portal to link the public with a new Precision Aging Network under a five-year $60 million federal grant awarded to the University of Arizona.

The Precision Aging Network, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will use an expanded version of MindCrowd — an internet-based research study developed and used by TGen and UArizona to study brain health — to help recruit 350,000 study participants, age 18 and older, and gather information about their cognition, demographics, health and lifestyle.    

Some of those individuals will then be invited to participate in more in-depth, in-person studies at one of four sites: UArizona in Tucson; Emory University in Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore; and the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida.

The network will bring together researchers from across the nation to better understand how and why people experience brain aging differently, with the ultimate goal of developing more effective treatments and interventions targeted to individuals.

"The brain aging process is so complex and unique to each person, and that makes it a perfect problem to solve through a more personalized, tailored approach,” said Matt Huentelman, TGen Professor of Neurogenomics.

“Our collaborative work — which consists of a combined study that makes use of cutting-edge and traditional research approaches — is poised to make an impact on how we age and avoid age-related brain diseases,” said Huentelman, one of the founders of MindCrowd and Associate Director of the Precision Aging Network.

Carol Barnes, a UArizona neuroscientist and Regents Professor of Psychology, Neurology and Neuroscience, and a national leader in brain-aging research, will lead the Precision Aging Network. It was inspired by the concept of precision medicine, which takes into account a person's genetics, lifestyle, environment and other factors to customize care, rather than relying on a one-size-fits-all approach.  

"You're going to age differently from me, and I'm going to age differently from someone else. We all need a prescription that fits us individually if we are to optimize our cognitive health," said Barnes, who is also a member of the university's BIO5 Institute and director of the UArizona Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. "We're interested in exploring more deeply: What is a normative aging brain? What are the fundamentals? Because we can't understand the diseases that happen in an aging brain until we understand the fundamentals of what is a generally normative aging brain."

Collaborators plan four national research studies

Researchers from TGen, UArizona, Arizona State University, Emory University, Johns Hopkins University, Baylor College of Medicine, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Miami, will be part of the UArizona-led network. The program will embark on four national-scale research studies designed to better understand the neural mechanisms that account for optimal brain performance in older age and those that underlie age-related cognitive impairment and disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

"The Precision Aging Network leverages decades of scientific insights from the University of Arizona team and the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, which created a launchpad for this next stage of exciting and impactful science," said Regents Professor of Pharmacology and BIO5 Institute member Roberta Diaz Brinton, director of the UArizona Health Sciences Center for Innovation in Brain Science and one of the Precision Aging Network's four associate directors. "Outcomes of Precision Aging Network research are critical for developing precision medicine approaches to prevent age-associated neurodegenerative diseases, most especially Alzheimer's."

"The University of Arizona is a world leader in research on aging, and this NIH award advances our work at the forefront of this very important field," said UArizona President Robert C. Robbins. "Carol Barnes and our other incredible faculty in this area have the potential to dramatically change how we approach challenges such as age-related cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease and ultimately improve people's lives."  

An estimated 50 million people worldwide are living with some form of dementia, and that number is expected to double every 20 years as people live longer, Barnes said.

A great many more older adults experience what is often referred to as "normal" age-related cognitive decline. While this might not be as life-altering as a disorder like Alzheimer's disease, it still can significantly impact a person's quality of life, said Lee Ryan, head of the UArizona Department of Psychology and another of the Precision Aging Network's associate directors. 

"Even for someone who doesn't have Alzheimer's disease, they could experience sufficient changes in their cognitive functioning that really interfere with their quality of life and their ability to live independently," Ryan said.

The bottom line: Humans' cognitive life span does not at this time match their physical life span. TGen and UArizona researchers want to help close that gap by taking a precision medicine approach similar to what's been seen in cancer research in recent years.

"Like tumor development, brain health depends on the interaction of multiple variables and genes over time," said UArizona Physiology Professor Meredith Hay, a BIO5 Institute member and another of the network's associate directors. "Some of these variables drive brain health and some are only passengers. The overarching hypothesis of the Precision Aging Network is that risk factors driving brain function and dysfunction will vary from individual to individual. By identifying the key brain health drivers for an individual, we can ultimately create personalized intervention strategies to better align cognitive health span with human life span."

The Precision Aging Network supports a UArizona Health Sciences strategic priority to establish UArizona as the global leader in healthy aging.

"As we seek to influence the critical factors that affect the health of an aging population, the Precision Aging Network will be a key component of the research and real-world applications we are pursuing," said Michael D. Dake, Senior Vice President for UArizona Health Sciences. "The many innovations in healthy aging that our cross-disciplinary teams are working on ultimately will contribute to better health and wellness for all."   

Bringing diversity to brain research

The Precision Aging Network will collect information on a diverse population of American adults of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds.

It will do this, in part, by leveraging MindCrowd, launched in 2013 to better understand human memory and risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. More than 225,000 people worldwide have already completed the MindCrowd online test, a 10-minute assessment of memory skill and reaction time.

"I am convinced that our unique, integrated study approach — one that combines a large national internet-based cohort with more traditional face-to-face study — is the exact way we need to approach the problem of understanding the aging brain and helping to better match our cognitive healthspan with our physical lifespan," Dr. Huentelman said.

Recruiting participants from diverse regions across the U.S. will help ensure large numbers of Hispanic/Latino, Black/African American and other racial and ethnic minorities are represented — an important goal of the study since those populations have been historically underrepresented in aging literature, Ryan said.

"A very small proportion of the research on aging has focused on racial, ethnic and cultural differences in the aging process, so we think that's an absolutely critical component," Ryan said.

"The Precision Aging Network enables us to expand our breadth of research related to aging and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's, with a focus on decreasing disparities in our understanding of aging and ultimately creating more equitable outcomes," said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, UArizona Senior Vice President for research and innovation.

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About TGen, an affiliate of City of Hope
Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) is a Phoenix, Arizona-based nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting groundbreaking research with life-changing results. TGen is affiliated with City of Hope, a world-renowned independent research and treatment center for cancer, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases:  This precision medicine affiliation enables both institutes to complement each other in research and patient care, with City of Hope providing a significant clinical setting to advance scientific discoveries made by TGen. TGen is focused on helping patients with neurological disorders, cancer, diabetes and infectious diseases through cutting-edge translational research (the process of rapidly moving research toward patient benefit). TGen physicians and scientists work to unravel the genetic components of both common and complex rare diseases in adults and children. Working with collaborators in the scientific and medical communities worldwide, TGen makes a substantial contribution to help our patients through efficiency and effectiveness of the translational process. For more information, visit: Follow TGen on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter @TGen.

TGen Media Contact:
Steve Yozwiak
TGen Senior Science Writer
[email protected] 

UArizona Media contact:
Nick Prevenas
University Communications
[email protected]


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