Psychiatric conditions may alter the brain, increase risk of Alzheimer’s


Shanna L. Burke, assistant professor at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work, has been awarded nearly $95,000 from The Florida Department of Health to study the effects of depression, anxiety and sleep disturbance on brain structure leading to Alzheimer’s disease. The funds will come from the Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program and are part of a $4.8 million project across Florida to help fight Alzheimer’s disease.

ShannanBurkeBurke previously conducted studies that investigated if depression, anxiety and/or sleep disturbance increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our results indicated that there is a relationship between having symptoms of these psychiatric conditions among people without any cognitive impairment and a higher risk of an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis later in life,” said Burke.

Psychiatric conditions may increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and changes in brain structures may be an indicator of these changes. The link between psychiatric conditions and Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias remains under study.

“We are excited to pursue this investigation using data from the National Alzheimer’s Coordinating Center, which is collected at more than 30 Alzheimer’s Disease Centers across the United States.”

Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible neurodegenerative condition that progressively results in impairments in functional abilities and extensive memory loss. The disease is of great public significance as there are no cures nor any therapeutic approaches that can arrest the progression of the disease. According to the State of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, there are an estimated 520,000 individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease in the state. Nationwide, an estimated one in three individuals will develop Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. Forecasts show that by 2050, it will cost the United States an estimated $1.1 trillion per year to care for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

Structural changes in the brain may begin up to 20 years before any symptoms of memory loss or functional impairment are noticeable, which means it is essential to understand how common psychiatric conditions, prevalent among mid-life adults, influence brain structures so early in the disease process.

An estimated 31 percent of adults will be diagnosed with anxiety during their lifetime while major depressive disorder is estimated to have a 14 percent lifetime prevalence.

In 2015, 16 percent of Floridians reported they had been “told that they had a depressive disorder” – higher than national estimates. Moreover, sleep disturbance is a symptom of both mood and anxiety disorders but can also occur independently. Florida residents fared no better: 34.8 percent of adults did not get adequate sleep.

“Understanding the impact of psychiatric conditions on brain structure and volume, and how these changes impact Alzheimer’s disease risk and development will provide  the push for researchers and clinicians to begin thinking about psychiatric conditions as modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. This is important because previous studies have found that adults who are asymptomatic may already exhibit pathophysiological features of Alzheimer’s disease, including changes to brain structures, up to 20 years before observable symptoms appear.”

There is an urgency to understand the full extent of regional brain changes resulting from psychiatric conditions, which may have their onset prior to age 65 but their consequence past the age of 65, and contribute consequently to Alzheimer’s disease development. According to the Pew Research Center, Florida has the highest percentage of older adults (19.1%) compared to other US States, and this is reflected in 53 of 67 Florida counties. This project has the potential to affect a large share of the current aging population in Florida, in addition to the State’s constantly growing older adult population.

Early identification and intervention of modifiable risk factors has the potential to reduce human suffering and costs associated with Alzheimer’s disease.