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USA College of Medicine Researcher Seeks to Determine Root Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease

USA College of Medicine researcher seeks to determine root cause of Alzheimer’s disease

MOBILE, Ala. -- As a basic, translational and clinical research scientist, Amy R. Nelson, Ph.D., searches for answers that will improve the lives of people with debilitating neurological diseases. 

“I absolutely love research. It brings hope,” said Nelson, who joined the University of South Alabama College of Medicine last year as an assistant professor of physiology and cell biology. “I have a curious mind that wants to know how things work and why they break. I enjoy determining how the brain works and believe it is timely and important to determine why it dysfunctions, especially as we age and with Alzheimer’s disease.”

The impetus to find better treatment for Alzheimer’s began as a personal one for Nelson. She lost several family members to the disease, including her father at age 57. After being involved in Alzheimer’s disease research, outreach and advocacy for more than a decade, her fight continues for the 5.8 million Americans currently living with the disease and the caregivers and family members deeply affected.

Although Alzheimer’s disease was first recognized more than 100 years ago, the root cause remains elusive, Nelson said. Research shows the buildup of two proteins in the brain – amyloid beta and tau – may be contributing factors. When these proteins are no longer adequately cleared from the brain, the accumulation leads to neurodegeneration. 

“There is growing appreciation that brain vasculature damage happens in normal aging and worsens in Alzheimer’s disease, and precedes these pathological hallmarks,” she said. “It is my goal to systematically determine the initial cause(s) of Alzheimer’s disease with the overarching goal of being able to prevent or help those suffering from this devastating disease.” 

Nelson received undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, followed by a Ph.D. in neurobiology, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She completed postdoctoral studies in neuroscience at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she worked on basic, translational and clinical research related to brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease. 

A native Alabamian, Nelson said the opportunity to further her Alzheimer’s research, the supportive and collaborative faculty at USA, and the potential to make a positive impact in her home state influenced her decision to move “from L.A. to L.A.” (Los Angeles to lower Alabama). 

The USA College of Medicine and the Department of Physiology and Cell Biology provided state-of-the-art equipment essential for her research. Although the COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges for starting a new research lab, Nelson said her lab is gaining momentum.  

“I have formed many new collaborations both in basic and clinical research, have several research funding opportunities in the pipeline, and the lab is starting to grow and generate data,” she said. “I am incredibly grateful for and impressed by the willingness of the faculty at South to work together towards new scientific discoveries. As a team, we will be able to make greater strides at correcting health disparities and improving human health and wellbeing.” 

Funded by the National Institute on Aging, Nelson’s lab is studying cells called pericytes, which wrap around and support the smallest blood vessels in the body, known as capillaries. Pericytes are critical for regulating blood flow and keeping blood and toxins from the bloodstream from entering the brain. Nelson is investigating if pericyte dysfunction may cause reduced blood flow in Alzheimer’s disease; and if so, how and why this is happening. 

In collaboration with other USA College of Medicine faculty members, Nelson and her lab team are exploring lung infection links to Alzheimer’s disease with Troy Stevens, Ph.D., Ron Balczon, Ph.D., and Mike Lin, Ph.D.; and the impact of pH on the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias with Xiangming Zha, Ph.D.

In addition, Nelson is collaborating with Joshua Keller, Ph.D., in USA’s Department of Health, Kinesiology and Sport, Center for Healthy Communities, Center of Excellence for Health Disparities, along with several other faculty members, to start a clinical trial to investigate whether specific exercise modalities improve brain vascular functions and cognition in middle-aged adults.


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