Study is first to jointly examine Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Study is first to jointly examine Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

With an $11.1 million federal grant awarded in 2015, researchers at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) have embarked on collaborative efforts to further understand the progression of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases with the goal of advancing patient care. This is the first time the two diseases have been studied together.

“The ways that Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases affect the brain can sometimes overlap,” says Aaron Ritter, MD, Director, Clinical Trials Program, at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “Collecting data at the same time can magnify differences and similarities between the two.”

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences established southern Nevada’s first Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), known as the Center for Neurodegeneration and Translational Neuroscience (CNTN). Dr. Ritter is Principal Investigator of the Clinical and Translational Research Core within the CNTN. The work of Dr. Ritter and his staff focuses on improving the translation of laboratory research to humans.

This team will study findings regarding inflammation and genetic markers to be gathered from a cohort of patients over five years through functional MRIs, PET scans and blood samples. Dr. Ritter hopes to recruit about 180 patients. The group’s demographics will match those of the state of Nevada, except that participants will be 55 and older and have a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. A group of participants with mild cognitive impairment and a group without symptoms will also be recruited to serve as comparisons.

Observations from this study will be tied back to observations of mice being studied in a UNLV lab in an effort to ensure that predictions seen in animal models will translate to human disease.

“Oftentimes, when we test new drugs in mice we see very promising findings, but these results have not followed in clinical trials with humans,” says Dr. Ritter.

The strength of these animal model predictions also will be tested through the use of a virtual Morris water maze developed by Sarah Banks, PhD, ABPP/CN, Head of Neuropsychology at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. The Morris water maze has been used for more than 25 years to assess spatial learning and memory in mice. The virtual version enables researchers to apply the same mouse maze challenges to humans on a computer in order to test their memory dysfunction and compare with results from the mouse model.

For a full list of research studies being conducted at the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, visit

Photo:  The first annual Nevada COBRE meeting, held in October, offered a unique opportunity for the southern and northern Nevada COBRE groups to network and share scientific information. Due in part to the success of the meeting, the group plans to meet again in fall 2017.

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