On Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her plans to withdraw from the public eye, stating she had been “diagnosed with the beginning states of dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease,” in an open letter released by the Supreme Court’s public information office.
It is estimated that around 5.7 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease—an incurable and progressive neurodegenerative condition whose diagnoses continues to be on the rise. Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine are hoping to change that trajectory.
“Dementia is the loss of cognitive functions and the ability to engage in one’s usual activities of daily living, whether that be at work or at home,” says Andrew Saykin, PsyD, the Raymond C. Beeler Professor of Radiology and director of the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center and Center for Neuroimaging at IU School of Medicine. “Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and is a specific type of underlying disease that develops slowly over time, causing cognitive decline, dementia and eventually death.”
O’Connor is the first woman to serve on the high court with an impressive 24-year-tenure before retiring in 2006 to spend time with her husband, John Jay O’Connor, as he fought his own battle against the disease. John, who declined much more rapidly than expected, succumbed to his illness in 2009.
“At the Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center, we’re working on methods for early detection of the biological changes that occur before a person begins to show decline in daily functioning,” Saykin explains. “The more we understand the basic biological mechanisms that cause Alzheimer’s disease, the more progress we can make in finding a treatment to slow and ultimately prevent it. Our goal is to keep future generations from experiencing what the O’Connors and so many others have before them.”
The Indiana Alzheimer Disease Center (IADC) at IU School of Medicine is a multidisciplinary research program acutely committed to the US National Alzheimer’s Project Act to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. In support of this Act, scientists at the school are active in a broad range of research as it relates to the disease, beginning with genetic and imaging studies of individuals who notice mild, early changes in their memory and extending to patients with greater levels of decline. At the same time, extensive laboratory research at IUSM is directed toward finding the cause and potential therapies for Alzheimer’s disease.
Earlier this month, IU School of Medicine neurologist and neuroscientist Liana Apostolova, MD, secured the largest single grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in university history–an expected $44.7 million–to lead a five-year national research study on early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This grant is an addition to a $7.6 million award received in 2017 that allowed the planning and other start-up activity to begin the study–the Longitudinal Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease Study (LEADS)–bringing the total federal support for the initiative to more than $52 million.
“While there’s still plenty of work to be done, IU School of Medicine is truly a leader in Alzheimer’s research, care and education. I have no doubt that our committed team of scientists and clinicians will continue to move mountains in this field for years to come,” says Saykin.
As for O’Connor, she steps away from the spotlight singing praise for the country in which she left her legacy upon:
“While the final chapter of my life with dementia may be trying, nothing has diminished my gratitude and deep appreciation for the countless blessings in my life. How fortunate I feel to be an American and to have been presented with the remarkable opportunities available to the citizens of our country.”
The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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