UNM professor pioneers new Alzheimer’s disease research

Alzheimer’s disease causes so much devastation to the victim and the family, but a professor at the University of New Mexico is pioneering research that would help people better understand the disease and potentially treat it.

Dr. Benjamin Clark is studying a particular group of brain cells he says could be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and a future cure.

“We’re particularly interested in a population of brain cells called ‘head direction’ cells,” said UNM assistant professor Dr. Clark.

The cells are found in the brain’s hippocampus — just behind the ears. They are responsible for sense of direction and navigation. Dr. Clark thinks they may also be linked to early detection of Alzheimer’s.

“It’s almost like those cells are forming a compass-like signal inside your brain, so it suggests a strong link to spatial orientation,” said Dr. Clark.

He says ‘spatial disorientation’ causes wandering and getting lost, which is an early symptom of Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

He and his team are testing mice to find any connection between head direction cells and the disease. The Alzheimer’s Association has noticed, awarding him $150,000 for research.

“He’s been working with mice for several years and this might have direct applications to humans and potential treatments,” said Chris Chaffin, media director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Albuquerque. 

It’s a much-needed treatment for this progressive, fatal disease that Chaffin says burdens the healthcare system and caregivers, who are typically family members.

“Numbers came out last March that show New Mexico is actually trending ahead of the country in cases of Alzheimer’s,” said Chaffin.

Dr. Clark is hoping his research can help change that.

“That’s kind of the big upshot to this research is that we really want to help those communities,” said Dr. Clark.

Alzheimer’s disease has affected about 40,000 people in New Mexico. Researchers say that number is expected to triple in the next 15 to 20 years without treatment or a cure.

UNM just received the funding and has no timetable for results from their research.

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