MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded West Virginia University (WVU) $2 million to help WVU School of Medicine researcher, Paul Chantler, and his colleagues investigate the link between chronic stress and Alzheimer’s disease.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in nine Americans age 65 or older has Alzheimer’s disease.

The team, which includes School of Medicine researchers James Simpkins and Eric Kelley, want to learn how vascular changes in the brain may worsen an Alzheimer’s patients’ cognitive decline.

Through the use of animal models, the researchers hope to explore how the naturally occurring enzyme xanthine oxidase “may sabotage the brain’s blood vessels in Alzheimer’s patients.”

“Billions of dollars have been spent looking specifically at how amyloid tangles, tau and plaque processes in the brain contribute to dementia,” said Chantler, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Physiology and the Department of Neuroscience. “The research has done really well in animal models, but when it made it to clinical trials, it’s fallen flat on its feet. So, NIH wanted to prioritize examining the vascular contributions to dementia. That’s where my research fits in well.”

Alongside identifying the effects that chronic psychological stress has on the disease’s progression, the team also plans to use a medication to block the xanthine-oxidase pathway to see if it improves the brain’s vasculature.

“Can we, one, use stress to accelerate the pathology of dementia?” Chantler said. “We think that we can. Two, can we delay Alzheimer’s pathology by giving this drug? Three, if we reduce stress and use the drug, do we have double the beneficial effect?”

The study could lead to new therapies for preserving the memory and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients and at risk individuals.

“If you know stress is a risk factor for dementia, then obviously you try and alleviate that stress,” Chantler said. “But, also, the drugs we’re using to block xanthine oxidase currently seem to prevent the vascular dysfunction that we see with dementia. Now, we’re currently looking at whether that leads to cognitive improvements, but it’s really exciting to say, ‘Well, even if you have a family history for dementia, maybe there are drugs out there that can diminish or delay some of the pathologies.’”