UK to Study Down Syndrome, Aging and Alzheimer's Disease


LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 12, 2010) – Elizabeth Head and Frederick Schmitt, physicians at the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, have been awarded a five-year grant for a dedicated research study of aging in adults with Down syndrome. The $2.4 million grant was awarded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development within the National Institutes of Health.

The study will look at how Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease may affect a person's memory and thinking as they get older. The goals of this longitudinal project are:  to follow neurological, learning and memory changes in adults with Down syndrome as they age; to examine brain changes using MRI; and to measure blood biomarkers. In combination, the study hopes to identify early markers of the development of Alzheimer’s disease in Down syndrome.

"This is an exciting opportunity to improve our knowledge about how and why persons with Down syndrome show pronounced changes in brain aging," said Schmitt, professor, Department of Neurology, UK College of Medicine, and a faculty member in the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. "This study, along with others of its type, could provide important information in the development of treatments for, and prevention of, dementia in Down syndrome and could also lead to insights into treatments and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease in people without Down syndrome."

"We will have participants assessed on a six month basis using tests of language, learning and memory," said Head, associate professor, Department of Molecular and Biomedical Pharmacology, UK College of Medicine, and a faculty member in the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. "Each year, we will measure brain changes using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and specifically look for changes in white matter integrity – fibers that connect different parts of the brain. We will also use protein profiling methods to measure changes with age in the blood of our participants." 


Volunteers who may eligible include persons with Down syndrome, age 35 and older with or without signs of Alzheimer’s disease.  Volunteers must be interested in participating in a five-year research study.  In addition, the volunteer, a family member or caregiver will need to answer questions about their health.  

"You can help the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging research team better understand how memory and thinking change in persons with Down syndrome as they get older and why they are at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. There will be no direct benefits to you from the research tests in this study. But, you may benefit from the medical examinations, blood tests and brain scans and they may show a disease or illness that needs further treatment," said Schmitt and Head, who are co-principal investigators of the research study.

If an disease or illness is detected, the study doctor will tell the participant's guardian and primary care doctor within 72 hours.


Participants in the study will be scheduled for memory and thinking tests and a physical examination, about a three-hour visit, at the University of Kentucky. They also will be asked to take tests that measure thinking skills and memory every 6 months and to give a blood sample and have a brain MRI scan each year.    

More than 400,000 people in the United States have Down syndrome. Down syndrome is the most commonly occurring chromosomal condition. Life expectancy has increased dramatically from 25 years a generation ago to greater than 60 years today. Overall, 50 percent of people with Down syndrome age 55 and over may have Alzheimer’s disease.


The study will recruit and follow for five years, 40 persons with Down syndrome over the age of 35.  In addition, 10 to 12 people with Down syndrome and Alzheimer disease will be recruited for a single research session.

This longitudinal project is a team effort and includes UK and Sanders-Brown Center on Aging faculty: Dr. Gregory Jicha, Dr. Allison Caban-Holt, Dr. Brian Gold, Dr. David Powell, Dr. Richard Kryscio, Dr. William Robertson, Dr. Stephen Scheff, Dr. Peter Nelson, Dr. Harry LeVine and Dr. Christopher Norris. In addition, Dr. Tony Wyss-Coray at Stanford University School of Medicine and Dr. Ira Lott at University of California, Irvine, are collaborators. The study scientists also will get input from Dr. Jose DeLeon, UK Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health Research Center; Dr. Harold Kleinert, UK Human Development Institute; as well as members including Betsy Dunnigan, acting deputy commissioner of the Kentucky State Cabinet for Health and Family Services; Dr. Allan Brenzel, clinical director with Department of Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities in Frankfort; Traci Brewer, chairperson of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky; Diana Merzweiler, executive director of Down Syndrome of Louisville Inc.; and Janet Gora, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati.

For more information and to volunteer for the research study, contact Roberta Davis at (859) 257-1412 ext. 479 or