Award Helping Unlock Clues About Cognitive Disease
Study Looks at Progression of Impairments That May Signal Alzheimer’s

As scientists attempt to build bulwarks in the brain against conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, a new technique to speed up disease diagnosis and buy more time for treatment is being explored by a researcher at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas

Focusing on Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), a transition state between healthy aging and dementia, Dr. Ilana Bennett  is testing people diagnosed with this early memory disorder to evaluate how their brains differ from those of healthy older adults.  The goal of the project is to reliably identify people with MCI early, so physicians can prescribe a course of treatment that will hopefully slow or stop the progression of memory disorders.

“We plan to test a new group of individuals diagnosed with a particular subtype of MCI and compare their brain function and brain structure to an age-matched comparison group,” Bennett said.

Bennett, a postdoctoral research fellow, hopes to identify people in the pre-clinical phases of Alzheimer’s disease by characterizing certain markers in the brain that are related to memory deficits. The technique may help clinicians decide on treatments for people with MCI, and may also lead to a physical assessment of how the brain is responding to treatment and intervention.

Her team is using a two-part approach: a functional MRI to see how peoples’ brains are working  during memory tests, and a technique called diffusion tensor imaging to evaluate the structural integrity of  white matter connections between these active brain regions.  The combination of techniques should help researchers to reliably distinguish between healthy brains and brains showing cognitive impairment.

Bennett’s promising research earned her the second annual Friends of BrainHealth Distinguished New Scientist award.  The distinction carries a $25,000 stipend for research and salary support and was created to assist bright, emerging researchers who are early in their careers and whose work holds the potential to advance brain science and aid humanity.

“Winning the Friends of BrainHealth award means a lot to me because I proposed a project that defines why I came to the Center for BrainHealth,” Bennett said.  “This project is the culmination of the last nine years of my research.  It allows me to return to the study of pathological aging, while continuing to also assess healthy older adults.”

Friends of BrainHealth was formed in 2007 by more than 100 donors consisting of concerned citizens and stakeholders committed to raising funds for advancements that heal the brain and maximize brain function.

“We had a great group of applicants for this award, making it very difficult for the selection panel to choose the winner—a great problem to have,” said Mr. Bruce Jones, BrainHealth’s assistant director for research operations.  “Ultimately, Dr. Bennett’s proposal was chosen because of its innovation and its potential for swiftly integrating the scientific findings into clinical practice.”

Bennett received her PhD from Georgetown University and began her postdoctoral fellowship at BrainHealth in 2009.

Dr. Ilana Bennett's work is geared toward identifying people in pre-clinical phases of Alzheimer’s disease by characterizing certain markers in the brain that are related to memory deficit.

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