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2 Researchers, 2 Very Different Approaches To Alzheimer's

University of West Florida

Each November is designated Alzheimer’s Awareness month. But researchers at the University of West Florida are working year-round to help detect, treat and one day hopefully cure the disease.

“Actually, it’s personal for me” said Dr. Crystal Bennett. She teaches in the Department of Nursing at UWF. The Florida Department of Health recently awarded the university a $94,000 grant for her research in helping Alzheimer’s patients with adaptive dance. “My mom was diagnosed with dementia and then that progressed into Alzheimer’s disease and she passed away a few years ago. I watched her respond positively to music and movement, where I would just dance with her to any random song and saw how that brought joy to her. And I thought 'How could I apply that type of intervention to other people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?'”

For her dissertation Dr. Bennett used adapted line dancing to work with people who had limited mobility and had positive results. That’s when she began looking for grants to use dance therapies with Alzheimer’s patients. That study is underway and the first phase should be completed before the end of the year. “The anecdotal information is that caregivers are finding that their loved ones are enjoying the dance (and) they’re seeing the benefits from that.”

The big question: Does the dance provide just a temporary feel-good fix, or does it have true therapeutic advantages?

“We’re looking at collecting data every four weeks. And so we’re really examining it over a six-month period. I have one group that does the dance for the first 12 weeks. And then, when they stop (after) 12 weeks, how long will those benefits last? Will it continue on? Or is it something that once they stop (the benefits) drop completely back off? And we won’t truly know the actual results from the study until it’s completed.”

The subjects of Dr. Bennett’s study are residents in local assisted-living facilities.

Dr. Bennett is not the only one doing research into Alzheimer’s disease at the Usha Kundu MD College of Health at UWF. Dr. James Arruda is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of West Florida.” His research has been going on for a few years, is a lot more technical and doesn’t involve music. He has been working on a biomarker that can be used to identify people who may be at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The tool being used to identify that marker is an EEG, a test that tracks and records brain wave patterns and is used to find problems related to the electrical activity of the brain.

Dr. Arruda said “We present an individual with a strobe-flash. And then we’re able to record, in real time, the response of the brain to that strobe-flash. And what we have found in the past and what we’ve published on is this response that we see in those people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dementia seems to be delayed. We then went further and looked at another population, a clinical population that’s associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s dementia, something referred to as Mild Cognitive Impairment. And we were able to show the same sort of finding. We’re basically sending a probe through the visual system (of) the brain and we’re seeing what comes out, how the brain handles it.”

The hope is that earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease could lead to better treatment outcomes. “We’re pretty good at being able to identify somebody who is having some cognitive deficits related to Alzheimer’s. And what we have found with those individuals is that the treatments that have worked in nonhuman animals have not worked with human beings. And so our hope at this point is to identify early enough and some of these treatments to see if perhaps it’s a developmental issue. Perhaps some of the treatments that we currently have, if given early enough, might be able to arrest the process.”

Dr. Arruda recently submitted a grant proposal to develop this marker, called the Flash Visual Evoked Potential measure, to the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health. 

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.