NEWS | October 27, 2010

UC Davis Alzheimer's researcher wins prestigious international neuroscience award

Photo of Charles DeCarli, copyright UC Regents
Charles DeCarli

Charles DeCarli, a UC Davis researcher whose groundbreaking neuroimaging investigations are at the forefront of advancing understanding of the relationship between the structure and function of the healthy aging brain and changes in the brain associated with vascular and Alzheimer's dementias, has been awarded the prestigious J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine by the Robarts Research Institute of the University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Each year, the Taylor Prize honors the world's leading researcher in biology, medicine and imaging. DeCarli, who is the director of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center and a professor in the Department of Neurology in the UC Davis School of Medicine, will accept the award during ceremonies in Ontario on Nov. 3. The honor includes a $10,000 cash prize.

"Dr. DeCarli is being recognized for his international leadership in the imaging of white-matter disease as well as his careful demonstrations of the genetic and vascular contributions to Alzheimer's disease, also using advanced imaging techniques he developed," said Ravi Menon, associate director of Robarts Research Institute and chair of the Taylor Prize selection committee. "With common treatments for hypertension and other vascular diseases available, his findings have enormous implications for the prevention of many cases of dementia."

In its 2009 World Alzheimer Report, Alzheimer's Disease International found that there are more than 35 million people in the world living with Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia. It also projected that the number should nearly double in the next 20 years.

"Dr. DeCarli's receiving the Taylor award reflects his deep personal and intellectual commitment to discovering interventions for the growing millions worldwide suffering from Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia," said Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor for human health sciences and dean of the School of Medicine at UC Davis. "His leadership and groundbreaking research inquiries and insights have significantly advanced hope for people around the globe with Alzheimer's disease."

During more than 23 years of focused investigations, DeCarli's work has expanded understanding of vascular factors in dementia and led him to breakthroughs in understanding of the relationship between Alzheimer's disease and vascular brain injury, a connection that has been observed clinically for decades but poorly understood. He established that cardiovascular risk factors accelerate brain aging and are associated with clinically significant memory loss, as early as age 55.

Combining novel imaging techniques with clinical information, his research revealed that vascular disease may actually cause or exacerbate the Alzheimer's pathology. His visionary investigations have led to advances in prevention and treatment strategies at the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center and at institutions worldwide focused on imaging and Alzheimer's disease, including the UC Davis Imaging of Dementia and Aging (IDeA) Laboratory, which he also directs.

"I feel very honored that my work has been recognized as a significant contribution to the science of brain aging," DeCarli said. "My career is intensely focused on understanding the subtle influences of asymptomatic disease on the structure and function of the aging brain and the role of genetics and other systemic factors on brain aging. My ultimate goal is to conduct research that helps practitioners advocate for their patients' greater brain health."

DeCarli's imaging research initially focused largely on the brain's white matter, which is composed of axons. Made up primarily of myelin -- the fatty insulation that speeds up nerve impulses -- axons are particularly susceptible to the high blood pressure associated with atherosclerosis and inflammation. DeCarli has analyzed the abnormally high signals -- called hyperintensities -- seen on brain MRIs, because they are indicators of axon damage and are seen as a key link in determining the effects of genetics and vascular disease on the aging brain.

His research suggests that vascular injury to the brain's white matter may combine with the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer's disease in neurons of the brain to increase the lifetime risk for dementia. He found that patients with Alzheimer's disease develop a characteristic pattern of white matter hyperintensity regions, which can be linked with vascular risk factors such as hypertension. It is a finding consistent with injury to axons connecting to neurons in the frontal lobes of the brain. Such injury impairs the brain's ability to manipulate and store information and may increase neuron damage, likely compounding and accelerating Alzheimer's disease.

Since 1985, Robarts Research Institute has awarded the J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine to some of the world's leading researchers across a range of scientific disciplines in biology, medicine and imaging. The recipient of the prize receives $10,000 and a classical medallion bearing the likeness of J. Allyn Taylor. The award is generously supported by the Stiller Foundation in recognition of J. Allyn Taylor -- founding Chair of the Board at Robarts -- his personal and professional commitment to integrity, dedication and distinction.

The UC Davis School of Medicine is among the nation's leading medical schools, recognized for its research and primary-care programs. The school offers fully accredited master's degree programs in public health and in informatics, and its combined M.D.-Ph.D. program is training the next generation of physician-scientists to conduct high-impact research and translate discoveries into better clinical care. Along with being a recognized leader in medical research, the school is committed to serving underserved communities and advancing rural health. For further information, visit the UC Davis School of Medicine website.