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$3.4M Grant to Fund Study of How Racism, Social Support Affect Devastating Brain Diseases

Project by UMD Researcher and Colleagues Will Focus on Asian American Groups Underrepresented in Neurology Research

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Asian American woman reads books with young children.
Asians Americans are historically underrepresented in neurologic research. A $3.4 million grant will fund a UMD study on how discrimination and other factors alter the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans. Photo from iStock.

A $3.4 million grant from the National Institute on Aging will fund a study by a University of Maryland researcher and colleagues on how discrimination at multiple levels and protective factors such as social support alter the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias in older Asian Americans.

Epidemiology and biostatistics Associate Professor Thu Nguyen and a research team led by University of California, San Francisco Professor Van Ta Park will develop the Asian Americans & Racism: Individual and Structural Experiences (ARISE) cohort of 500 Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese Americans—groups historically underrepresented in the nation's neurologic research.

While the nation’s Asian population reached 22.4 million in 2019 (an 88% jump from 2000), Asian Americans represent less than 3% of participants in a national database of Alzheimer’s related research. 

Most Alzheimer's research does not include a broad, representative group of participants, Nguyen said. 

“The populations reached are generally not racial ethnic minorities,” she said.

To increase representation, the National Institutes of Health is focusing on health disparities related to aging and supporting research to improve the health of older adults in diverse populations.

Using surveys written in participants’ first languages, the team will collect information from participants on their daily experiences of individual and structural discrimination, and specifically what they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ll also take blood samples and basic health information like height, weight and blood pressure.

The study will then evaluate how discrimination is associated with changes in cognitive performance and levels of five traits (known as blood biomarkers) that are associated with Alzheimer’s and related dementias. Researchers hypothesize that discrimination experiences will correlate to lower cognitive performance and higher levels of the biomarkers.

The study will also look into how support from families and religious communities as well as risk factors like depression can ease or worsen the effects of discrimination.

[A Twin-Twin Situation in Epidemiology and Biostatistics]

To assess the racial climate in participants’ neighborhoods, they will also use a machine learning model designed by Nguyen that measures the sentiment in social media posts that reference minority groups.

“With this study, we're looking at participants' individual, social and demographic characteristics; the physical environment; and neighborhood socioeconomic status, as well as measures of prejudice where they reside,” Nguyen said. “It's much more comprehensive than what is usually assessed.”

Nguyen and her UMD research team will lead data analyses for the study. University of Minnesota, University of California, Irvine and University of California, Davis, University of California, Los Angeles, San Jose State University, and Boston University researchers will also provide support.

The grant will fund the study for one year. The team will apply for additional funding in the coming years to expand its efforts and establish a longitudinal cohort of 1,500 participants.

“There’s limited treatment for Alzheimer’s,” Nguyen said. “It’s really about prevention and identifying signs early on. A lot of the social factors are modifiable, and if they are identified, they can be leveraged for interventions or policy change.” 


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