UNT Health Science Center researcher receives Alzheimer’s grant

Carolyn Poirot

Special to the Fort Worth Business Press

Rebecca Cunningham, PhD. and her research team at UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth have won a $100,000 New Investigator Research Grant from the Alzheimer’s Association to study how testosterone, sleep apnea and oxidative stress work together to promote brain inflammation and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep apnea is known to cause oxidative stress, and men are three times as likely as women to develop sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts with snoring, Cunningham says.

“Alone sleep apnea may influence the risk for cognitive impairment, but when you add testosterone, it’s like creating the perfect storm,” said Cunningham, assistant professor of pharmacology and neuroscience, at the grant announcement last Thursday at UNT Health Science Center.

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Sleep apnea produces toxic oxygen molecules called “free radicals,” which, in turn, produce oxidative stress that causes damage to brain cells. Oxidative stress occurs when there are more free radicals produced in the body than antioxidants. Cunnungham and her colleagues want to determine whether popular testosterone supplements that many older men now take, increase the level of free radicals circulating in their blood and whether the increase of free radicals amplifies brain inflammation and cognitive dysfunction.

She wants to learn how such damage affects the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease in men and who is most at risk for such negative effects. She said she hopes her research will lead to heightened awareness of the possible risks men face so that testing for sleep apnea can occur earlier and more frequently. “The trouble is people with sleep apnea often don’t know they have it,” Cunningham said. Usually it’s only when a spouse reports the person snoring that they get tested for it.” Men should know whether or not they have sleep apnea before starting testosterone replacement therapy, she added. Her research is among 78 scientific investigations funded with nearly $14 million in research grants from the Alzheimer’s Association this year, said Theresa Hocker, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association – North Central Texas Chapter. “The study is right in line with fulfilling the mission of the Alzheimer’s Association,” Hocker said. “We are so truly thrilled to have researchers of this caliber right here in our own community, receive this national honor.” Hocker said Cunningham’s project was selected from among 537 applications from all over the world to receive funding in 2014. Since 1982, the Alzheimer’s Association has invested more than $335 million in more than 2,250 scientific investigations. Some 350 research projects are currently ongoing in 20 countries.