A San Antonio researcher hopes to eventually get 100,000 people to enroll in a first-of-its-kind study on cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, and anyone who doesn’t mind wearing a fitbit can volunteer.
University of Texas San Antonio Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Amina Qutub has an immediate goal of having 1,000 people enrolled by the end of the year. She is looking for both healthy people and people who have symptoms of cognitive decline and dementia. She is also looking for people with sleep disorders because there is evidence people with disordered sleep may be at greater risk for Alzheimer’s.
The study is as unique as it is large. It’s called the Quantu Project, and it involves researchers using fitbits to measure participants’ daily activity so they can figure out how someone's behavior changes when they experience the first hints of dementia. But it's what they're doing back at the lab that is really groundbreaking.
They’re drawing blood from participants and taking cells from that blood. With help from UTSA’s Stem Cell Core researchers, they're growing those cells into neural networks that reflect what's going on in the participant's own brain at the moment they drew the blood.
Qutub is the Quantu team leader, and she said scientists have never been able to do this before.
"We can watch (the neural networks) over several weeks develop. You're seeing the stem cells become these networks of neurons. It's incredible to watch,” she said. “It's the coolest thing."
The goal of this study is simple, Qutub said.
"How do you digitalize brain health from when you're growing up and developing to when you reach old age?"
She's hoping to document behaviors that might indicate or even predict cognitive decline that can lead to dementias like Alzheimer's. That leads to the other part of the study. They're using fitbits to track all of the study participants’ daily activity. Qutub said that actually makes them researchers on her team, too.
"Because you are recording like a scientist would, and people don't think of it that way, but you are. And what we're doing is analyzing that data to makes sense of it," Qutub added.
Qutub’s team plans to correlate each person's daily behaviors with changes in how their brain is working by watching how those lab-grown neural networks communicate.
"So that in itself is...we're learning how brain cells communicate,” Qutub said. “We couldn't do that before. Human brain cells. These are not animal models. These aren't other types of organisms. They're the human system."
In the end, Qutub hopes to better understand the habits of people who remain cognitively healthy as they age.
"We're interested in how do you figure out what would be a daily habit as simple as brushing your teeth and washing your hands that could ward off cognitive decline."
Qutub said this research could go beyond helping scientists understand cognitive decline and dementia. It could assist in gaining a better understanding of other types of cognitive impairment. That includes impairment caused by stroke, which is personal for Qutub. Her father is a stroke survivor. She said she never forgets there are real people who may be impacted by what she learns on the Quantu Project.
"I'm contacted by people whose family members, who are mothers or fathers of children who are suffering from cognitive decline or cognitive disorders” Qutub said. “We're interested in making an impact for them."
If you would like to volunteer for this study, you can sign up here.