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Study Peeks Into Healthy Brains to Hunt Alzheimer’s Culprit

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In this photo taken May 19, 2015, Judith Chase Gilbert, of Arlington, Va., is loaded into a PET scanner by Nuclear Medicine Technologist J.R. Aguilar at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. Gilbert shows no signs of memory problems but volunteered for a new kind of scan as part of a study peeking into healthy brains to check for clues about Alzheimer's disease. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In this photo taken May 19, 2015, Judith Chase Gilbert, of Arlington, Va., is loaded into a PET scanner by Nuclear Medicine Technologist J.R. Aguilar at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington. Gilbert shows no signs of memory problems but volunteered for a new kind of scan as part of a study peeking into healthy brains to check for clues about Alzheimer’s disease. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

LAURAN NEERGAARD, AP Medical Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sticky plaque gets the most attention, but now healthy seniors at risk of Alzheimer’s are letting scientists peek into their brains to see if another culprit is lurking.

No one knows what actually causes Alzheimer’s, but the suspects are its two hallmarks — the gunky amyloid in those brain plaques or tangles of a protein named tau that clog dying brain cells. New imaging can spot those tangles in living brains, providing a chance to finally better understand what triggers dementia.

Now researchers are adding tau brain scans to an ambitious study that’s testing if an experimental drug might help healthy but at-risk people stave off Alzheimer’s. Whether that medication works or not, it’s the first drug study where scientists can track how both of Alzheimer’s signature markers begin building up in older adults before memory ever slips.

“The combination of amyloid and tau is really the toxic duo,” predicted Dr. Reisa Sperling of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who is leading the so-called A4 study. “To see it in life is really striking.”

The A4 study — it stands for Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s — aims to enroll 1,000 healthy seniors like Judith Chase Gilbert, 77, of Arlington, Virginia. The recently retired government worker is mentally sharp but learned through the study that her brain harbors amyloid buildup that might increase her risk. Last week, researchers slid Gilbert into a doughnut-shaped PET scanner as she became one of the first study participants to also have their brains scanned for tau.

“We know that tau starts entering the picture at some point, and we do not know when. We do not know how that interaction happens. We should know,” said chief science officer Maria Carrillo of the Alzheimer’s Association, which is pushing to add tau scans to other dementia research, too.

More than 35 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s or similar dementias, including about 5 million in the U.S. Those numbers are expected to rise rapidly as the baby boomers get older. There is no good treatment. Today’s medications only temporarily ease symptoms and attempts at new drugs, mostly targeted at sticky amyloid, have failed in recent years.

Maybe that’s because treatment didn’t start early enough. Scientists now think Alzheimer’s begins quietly ravaging the brain more than a decade before symptoms appear, much like heart disease is triggered by gradual cholesterol buildup. Brain scans show many healthy older adults quietly harbor those sticky amyloid plaques, not a guarantee that they’ll eventually get Alzheimer’s but an increased risk.

Yet more recent research, including a large autopsy study from the Mayo Clinic, suggests that Alzheimer’s other bad actor — that tangle-forming tau protein — also plays a big role. The newest theory: Amyloid sparks a smoldering risk, but later spread of toxic tau speeds the brain destruction.

Normal tau acts sort of like railroad tracks to help nerve cells transport food and other molecules. But in Alzheimer’s, the protein’s strands collapse into tangles and eventually the cell dies. Most healthy people have a small amount of dysfunctional tau in one part of the brain by their 70s, Sperling said. But amyloid plaques somehow encourage this bad tau to spread toward the brain’s memory center, she explained.

The A4 study, which is enrolling participants in the U.S., Australia and Canada, may give some clues.

The goal is to check up to 500 people for tau three times over the three-year study, as researchers tease out when and how it forms in those who are still healthy. They won’t be told the results — scientists don’t know enough yet about what the scans portend.

At the same time, study participants will receive either an experimental anti-amyloid drug — Eli Lilly & Co.’s solanezumab — or a placebo as researchers track their memory. The $140 million study is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Lilly and others; the Alzheimer’s Association helped fund the addition of the tau scans.

The idea: If the drug proves to be helpful, it might be tamping down amyloid formation that in turn reins in toxic tau. In previous studies, solanezumab failed to help full-blown Alzheimer’s but appeared to slow mental decline in patients with mild disease, raising interest in testing the still healthy.

“We’re trying to remove amyloid’s downstream effects on tau formation,” said Dr. R. Scott Turner of Georgetown University Medical Center, where Gilbert enrolled in the study.

Seeing how amyloid and tau interact in living brains “is opening a whole new chapter into possible therapies,” Turner added.

For Gilbert, learning she had amyloid buildup “was distressing,” but it has prompted her to take extra steps, in addition to the study, to protect her brain. On her doctor’s advice, she’s exercising more, and exercising her brain in a new way by buying a keyboard to start piano lessons.

“It’s exciting to be part of something that’s cutting edge,” said Gilbert, who had never heard of tau before.

And she has a spot-on question: “So what’s the medication for the tau?”

Stay tuned: A handful of drugs to target tau also are in development but testing will take several years.

___

Online: www.a4study.org

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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IN MEMORIAM: Robert Farris Thompson, Renowned Professor of African American Studies

Prolific Professor Robert Farris Thompson truly embodied the term ‘Maestro de Maestros.’ He was an absolute giant in the field of Afro-Atlantic history and art, respected by his peers for his groundbreaking work and multiple major articles and publications, particularly the seminal “Flash of the Spirit” (1984) and “Faces of the Gods” (1993).

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Robert Farris Thompson. Yale University photo.
Robert Farris Thompson. Yale University photo.

TRIBUTE

By John Santos

We’ve lost a Rosetta Stone.

Prolific Professor Robert Farris Thompson passed in his sleep Monday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease and having been weakened by a bout with COVID-19 at the beginning of the year. He would’ve completed his 89th year on December 30.

Born on Dec. 30, 1932, Thompson was a White Texan who spectacularly disproved the fallacy of White supremacy through his pioneering and tireless elevation and clarification of African art, philosophy and culture. He removed the blinders and changed the way that generations of international students see African art.

A U.S. Army veteran, he went to Yale on a football scholarship and earned a B.A. in 1955. He joined the faculty in 1964 and earned his Ph.D. in 1965. He remained on the faculty until 2015.

‘Master T,’ as his students and friends often referred to him, was the Col. John Trumbull professor of the History of Art and professor of African American Studies at Yale University.

Thompson was also an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

He curated game-changing national exhibitions such as “African Art in Motion,” “The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds,” and “Faces of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas.” The latter had a run at U.C. Berkeley in 1995 when local practitioners of African spirituality and musicians — including myself – demonstrated the powerful knowledge of tradition.

Thompson truly embodied the term ‘Maestro de Maestros.’ He was an absolute giant in the field of Afro-Atlantic history and art, respected by his peers for his groundbreaking work and multiple major articles and publications, particularly the seminal “Flash of the Spirit” (1984) and “Faces of the Gods” (1993). If he did not coin, he certainly standardized the term ‘Black Atlantic.’ He was a brilliant presenter, writer and teacher. But unlike many if not most academicians, he was also loved, revered and respected by the musicians, artists and communities about whom he wrote.

Initiated in Africa to Erinle, the deity of deep, still water, Thompson was hip, quirky and totally immersed in African and African-based music, dance, language, art and history. His lifetime of research, immersion and visionary work formed a bridge between Black America and her African roots.

Countless trips to Africa, the Southern U.S., the Caribbean and Central and South America informed his passionate work. He wrote about sculpture, painting, architecture, dance, music, language, poetry, food, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, African history, stolen antiquities, African spirituality, African retention, Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Black Argentina, New York, México, mambo, tango, jazz, spirit possession and so much more. He recorded African drumming. He befriended giants of African diaspora music such as Julito Collazo, Babatunde Olatunji and Mongo Santamaría.

I first saw his writing around 1970 on the back of the classic red vinyl 1961 Mongo Santamaria LP, Arriba! La Pachanga (Fantasy 3324). They are inarguably among the deepest liner notes ever written.

He told me that he used our 1984 recording, Bárbara Milagrosa, by the Orquesta Batachanga, to demonstrate danzón-mambo to his students. I nearly burst into tears when he invited me and Omar Sosa to address and perform for his students at Yale, his alma mater, where he was a rock star. It was an unforgettable occasion for me.

He wrote wonderful liner notes on our 2002 Grammy-nominated production SF Bay, by the Machete Ensemble. He went out of his way to support and encourage countless students and followers like me. I was highly honored to count him as a friend as well as mentor.

He will be missed.

John Santos is a seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist and former director of Orquesta Batachanga and Machete Ensemble and current director of the John Santos Sextet.

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Bay Area

Get Booster Shot, Celebrate Thanksgiving Holiday Safely, State Officials Say

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

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According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”
According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media

Golden State public health officials are recommending that Californians take COVID-19 booster shots to prevent a resurgence of the disease and to celebrate the holidays safely with their loved ones.

“It’s not too late to get it,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Department, referring to the COVID-19 booster shot. He was speaking at a vaccine clinic in Los Angeles County last week.

“Get that added protection for the Thanksgiving gatherings you may attend,” he said.

Last week, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine boosters for all adults in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed with an endorsement of the booster vaccine, recommending it for people over age 50, and anyone 18 and older who is at higher risk.

The CDC loosened the language for all other adults, saying anyone over age 18 “may” take the shot.

California officials say the booster shots are plenty and available throughout the state.

“If you think you will benefit from getting a booster shot, I encourage you,” said Ghaly. “Supplies are available. There are many sites across the state – thousands in fact.”

On Saturday, the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup completed a separate review of the federal government’s approval process for the booster shots and also recommended that “individuals 18 or older who have completed their primary vaccination series,” take the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna boosters.

California, Oregon, Nevada and Washington state came together last year and created the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup. The group, made up of scientists, medical professionals and public health experts, is charged with reviewing COVID-19 vaccine safety.

Over the last two weeks, COVID-19 infections across the United States have increased at a rate of nearly 33%, according to the CDC.

Officials are encouraging people who took both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago to get their boosters now. People who took the one-shot Johnson & Johnson primary dose at least two months ago, should also schedule their booster shot.

“COVID-19 boosters are available to all Californians 18 [and over]! Walk-in clinics are open statewide with no appointment necessary – like this mobile clinic in Avenal. Find a clinic or pharmacy near you and get yours today,” Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office chimed in on Twitter.

Newsom has pushed hard for the vaccine booster since he received his last month.

“Great news for the rest of the country. The holidays are here — make sure to keep your immunity up and protect yourself and your loved ones. Get your booster,” Newsom tweeted on November 18.

According to Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel, the booster shots are being administered under an “emergency use authorization.”

California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.

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COMMENTARY: Abuse Is Not Love

Domestic violence is the No. 1 violent crime in Marin. Women account for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence, and men for 15%. Half of the men who assault their wives also assault their children. Adults in same-sex relationships suffer abuse at the same rate as heterosexual couples.

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photo from www.itv.com.
photo from www.itv.com.

By Godfrey Lee

The Mental Health Advocacy Team of First Missionary Baptist Church (FMBC), along with the Marin City Mental Health Services, and the Center for Domestic Peace, conducted a training called “Working Together to End Domestic Violence” on October 25.

Rev. Ronald Leggett, FMBC’s pastor, hosted the Zoom program.

Cynthia Williams, a domestic violence advocate for peace, and a friend of FMBC, introduced the presenter and facilitator, Meghan Kehoe, from the Center for Domestic Peace.

photo from left: Rev. Ronald Leggett, Meghan Kehoe

photo from left: Rev. Ronald Leggett, Meghan Kehoe

Kehoe says that domestic violence is a pattern of abusive behavior used to exert power and control over an intimate partner. The abuser may use a variety of types of abuse to make sure that they have and maintain control over their partner. These types of domestic violence include physical, emotional, economic, sexual, spiritual abuse as well as stalking and strangulation.

Domestic violence can be physical, but the greatest impact is through verbal and emotional abuse. How victims have been abused and how they feel about themselves will always be present in their mind.

Domestic violence is the No. 1 violent crime in Marin. Women account for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence, and men for 15%. Half of the men who assault their wives also assault their children. Adults in same-sex relationships suffer abuse at the same rate as heterosexual couples.

Survivors need unconditional support from their friends. Many of those who stay in an abusive relationships have probably lost a lot of friends who love and support the victim but don’t understand the pattern of abuse, and do not understand why the survivor leaves, then returns to the abuser.

Children witness and experience the domestic violence and fear it just as much as the survivor does, if not more, and 60% of them are also victims of the physical violence as well.

The children, youth, and young adults are also being traumatized and affected by the violence. They may not know how to articulate what is happening to their family, or how to feel when their parents are hurting each another. So, talk to them and see if they want to talk to their parents or a safe person in their life.

Even if children know that they are not the cause of the violence, they still feel it in their hearts. Tell them that it is not their fault, and nothing they did caused the violence.

Young people who survive need good information, programs and services to help them find and maintain healthy relationships.

There is never a wrong time to reach out to someone who is being abused in a relationship. And you should also go with them to get help. Connect them to professionals, or a domestic violence agency. Offer them unconditional support a friend who will look out for them no matter what happens to them, what choices they make, whether or not they go back to their abuser, and be there for them in a non-judgmental way, Kehoe said.

For more information, go to centerfordomesticpeace.org. If you are in need of emergency assistance or wish to make an appointment with Center for Domestic Peace, please contact their 24-hour hotline: (English/ Spanish) 415-924-6616.

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