Researchers at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola are examining genetic information in brain cells to find the cause of Alzheimer’s disease, with the goal of then reprogramming those cells to behave like healthy ones.

Dr. Allison Reiss, who heads the research team, is confident that if a genetic cause is found, treatments can be developed to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s or prevent it entirely.

What to know

Researchers at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola are examining genetic information in brain cells to find out what causes Alzheimer’s disease.

The goal is to then reprogram those cells — called neurons — to behave like healthy brain cells and develop treatments to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s or prevent it entirely.

Reiss is seeking more blood samples for her research. Contact her at allison.reiss@nyulangone.org or at 516-663-3455.

"If you know what is wrong, you can take steps to correct it," said Reiss, an associate professor of medicine in the NYU Long Island School of Medicine in Mineola and head of the hospital’s inflammation laboratory. "We still don’t understand what’s wrong."

About 6.2 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fatal disease, the most common type of dementia, attacks the brain, gradually destroying memory and thinking skills. In later stages, many people with Alzheimer’s cannot carry out basic tasks.

Researchers have spent decades searching for a cure, or at least a drug that significantly slows the progression of the disease. Reiss believes comparing genetic information in brain cells called neurons is the key. Alzheimer’s causes neurons to stop functioning and then die.

Dr. Allison Reiss, center, with members of her team: Maryann Johnson,...

Dr. Allison Reiss, center, with members of her team: Maryann Johnson, Heather Renna, Dr. Aaron Pinkhasov, Joshua De Leon and Saba Ahmed. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Reiss’ approach caught the attention of the Manhattan-based Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, which has donated $400,000 toward her research, including $50,000 this month and $250,000 last year.

The foundation’s president and CEO, Charles Fuschillo Jr., said he has "great hope for the success of this research."

"There are a lot of different ideas out there, but not like this," he said. "Her focus is to find out early where something has gone wrong in the brain by trying to re-energize healthy neurons. It’s an extraordinary approach we haven’t seen done anywhere. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve supported this."

Reiss, a member of the foundation's advisory board, said other scientists have looked at human cells reprogrammed in the lab to act like neurons.

But her team is obtaining genetic information from actual human neurons, by capturing particles that are shed from neurons and then circulate in the blood.

Much Alzheimer’s research has focused on proteins called amyloid and tau, which build up in the brains of people with the disease. The Food and Drug Administration last year approved a drug, Aduhelm, that aims to remove amyloid, but Reiss and many other scientific experts criticized the decision, because of mixed results in clinical trials and potentially serious side effects.

Reiss, a specialty chief editor of the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, believes the focus instead should be taking "corrective action" on neurons.

"You have to find something early that you can actually fix to prevent the neurons from dying, because you can’t revive the dead ones," she said.

In unpublished findings, Reiss has found some important genetic differences.

"Something’s wrong really fast, really early, and we’re picking it up," she said.

Others have found differences using lab-grown neurons, but Reiss sees more potential using actual human neurons.

Yet just because a certain gene is abnormal in Alzheimer’s patients doesn’t mean that is a cause of the disease, she said. The disease may have caused the abnormality.

"Is this collateral damage or is it the reason?" she said.

Dr. Thomas Wisniewski, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at NYU in Manhattan, will use powerful equipment there to further evaluate components of the neuron pieces and then send the information to Reiss’ team for analysis.

Reiss’ focus has been comparing Alzheimer’s neurons with those of healthy people. Recent funding will allow for comparisons with the siblings and children of those with Alzheimer’s, and with those with mild cognitive impairment, a deterioration of memory and thinking that sometimes progresses to Alzheimer’s.

"That is important, because you can see it before it gets really bad," Reiss said.

Reiss began a small pilot program in about 2015. Funding in 2019 expanded research.

One of the early blood donations was from Linda German, at the time a Water Mill resident. She died of Alzheimer’s in November at age 70.

Her widower, David German, 69, who now lives in Manhattan, is excited that his wife’s genetic information could help lead to advances in Alzheimer’s treatment or even a cure.

He watched his wife deteriorate to the point where she couldn’t walk or use the bathroom on her own.

"Linda and I were together for more than 30 years, and you’re watching her and it’s heartbreaking," German said. "It’s just a losing battle. I don’t want to see anybody go through what we went through."

The pandemic diverted Reiss to focus primarily on COVID-19 research. Alzheimer’s research in recent weeks again has ramped up.

Technology already exists to reprogram cells, so if a genetic cause of Alzheimer’s is identified, then changing the behavior of those genes to either slow the progression of Alzheimer’s or prevent the disease from developing altogether is possible, Reiss said.

"I totally believe Alzheimer’s is not incurable," she said.

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