NIH awards $44.4m grant to USF researchers to fund ongoing Alzheimer's research

The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) has awarded about $44 million in grant monies over five years for the continuation of USF’s Preventing Alzheimer’s with Cognitive Training (PACT) study.

Generally, dementia is one of the most problematiic medical conditions in the United States. It’s a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and can cause memory problems, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.

Research led by Dr. Jerri Edwards, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, has shown that “brain training” is successful in reducing the risk of dementia. Edwards says this latest grant funding will enable the expansion and enhancement of those studies that have gone on for 15 years.

Strong preliminary data from more than 18 randomized clinical trials have shown a particular type of computerized training -- cognitive training -- improves cognition and leads to improved everyday activities.

There are currently at least eight USF scientists working with the PACT study, and Edwards says the grant money will help finance the expansion of that team and broaden the study to multiple locations across the United States. Four universities have already been chosen for further research, but those institutions haven’t been publicly announced. 

Over the past two to three years, Edwards says, more than 1,000 older adults in the Tampa Bay Area have participated in cognitive studies, which helped attract the additional funding. 

Study volunteers can participate at the Cognitive Aging Lab on the Tampa campus, at USF’s St. Petersburg Campus, and at Reliance Medical Centers in Lakeland and Winter Haven. Additional locations in the community can also be arranged, if necessary.
The goal is to have 3,000 enrolled from the Tampa Bay region.

“We’re always trying to recruit study participants and make connections with our communities to involve them in research and development … and hopefully find ways to prevent dementia,’’ says Edwards. 

A significant amount of the $44.4 million is already earmarked for spending due to the high cost of research associated with PACT -- up to $100,000 of highly regulated federal funding per study participant.
“It sounds like a lot of money but let me tell you, it’s not when you’re trying to do 7,600 people in five different universities,” adds Edwards.

While many advancements in the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have occurred in recent years to help manage and improve symptoms, no cure exists yet. Cognition-enhancing medications improve mental function, lower blood pressure, and keep mood balance in check.
But with ongoing studies and research such as USF’s PACT study, intervention methods in delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s are becoming more practical and refined. As people continue to live longer due to improvements in healthcare, Edwards says, it’s imperative to do the research to ensure that mental and physical functions are equally maintained.
“As our population continues to live longer and a large percentage of our population is older adults, (Alzheimer’s Disease) is an increasingly important public health issue, which is why NIH is funding a lot of grants like this -- to try to find a way to curb the prevalence of dementia,” Edwards concludes.
Researcher Dr. Aryn Harrison Bush, a PACT co-investigator who has been at USF since 2006, says attracting research participants has been the most challenging aspect of the study and the grant money will help make its relevance stand out. 

“Alzheimer’s and related dementia affect the individual and the family members, friends, and community; it’s not just affecting the person that has it. It’s a devastating condition,” says Harrison Bush, who lives in Lakeland. “To be able to contribute to determining … if this intervention is effective, that right there would be a huge impact on this devastating disease.”

To qualify to participate in the PACT studies, participants must be at least 65 with no signs of cognitive impairment or dementia. There is a special need for more Black and Hispanic study volunteers -- populations at the highest risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

For more information on the studies, visit or call 813-974-6703.

Related story: Can brain training fend off dementia? USF researchers want you to try it

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Read more articles by Paul Catala.

Paul Catala is a freelance writer whose work has been published across Florida, the U.S., and internationally. He has more than 30 years of experience working at the Charlotte Sun-Herald, the Tampa Tribune, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Provo (Utah) Daily-Herald, The (Lakeland) Ledger, and the Associated Press. He has a degree in broadcast telecommunication from the University of Florida and did post-graduate study in journalism at the University of South Carolina. Now living in Lakeland, Paul is an accomplished musician, playing keyboard and piano both solo and with bands around the Tampa Bay Area.