Research Roundup: New Breakthroughs from Northwestern Medicine Scientists

Northwestern Medicine
Clinical Trials and Research March 19, 2015
From examining the brains of SuperAgers to developing creative options for patient care, every day Northwestern Medicine® research scientists are working tirelessly to find answers to important healthcare issues. In our new “Research Roundup” blog series, we’ll share recent scientific developments published by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine faculty.

SuperAger Brains Yield New Clues to Their Remarkable Memory
Male superager reading a bookExamining the brains of SuperAgers – those aged 80 and above with very little decline in memory – could unlock secrets to why the memories of these cognitively elite don’t suffer the usual ravages of time. 

In a recent study, Northwestern Medicine scientists discovered that SuperAger’s brains are remarkably different from those of normal older people; understanding their unique “brain signature” may enable scientists to decipher the genetic or molecular source of their resilience, and may foster the development of strategies to protect the memories of normal aging persons as well as treat dementia.

SuperAgers’ unusual brain signature has three common components when compared with normal persons of similar ages: a thicker region of the cortex; significantly fewer tangles (a primary marker of Alzheimer’s disease) and a whopping supply of one specific kind of neuron – von Economo neurons – linked to higher social intelligence.

“The brains of the SuperAgers are either wired differently or have structural differences when compared to normal individuals of the same age,” said Changiz Geula, PhD, study senior author and a research professor in the CNADC. “It may be one factor, such as expression of a specific gene, or a combination of factors that offers protection.”

Read the full story here.

Exploring the Benefit and Risks of Coffee

Marilyn Cornelis, PhD in the middle of a group photoFor many people, coffee is critical of their daily routine, but its effects on health are not completely understood. Northwestern researcher, Marilyn Cornelis, PhD, is using epidemiology and new biological approaches to understand the potential health benefits and consequences of coffee consumption. 

Her research has linked six new genetic variants to coffee consumption, The research identified genes related to caffeine metabolism and caffeine’s psychoactive effects, as well as genes with no obvious connection to coffee drinking behavior. In her most recent publication, Cornelis examined the field and reviews the available research to further understand the health benefits of coffee.

“What is interesting about coffee is that it’s been linked to potentially adverse and potentially protective effects,” she said. “People want to know if coffee is good or bad for them. The answer will depend on the individual. By accounting for genetic markers of response, we can try to make personalized recommendations for coffee consumption.

Read the full story.

Navigators Help Patients Overcome Healthcare Inequalities

Navigating the healthcare system can be daunting for almost anyone. Add in the many obstacles that low-income uninsured populations face, and it becomes tremendously more difficult.

Melissa Simon, MD, obstetrician/gynecologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and George H. Gardner, MD, Professor of Clinical Gynecology at the Feinberg School. is working to help uninsured and low-income individuals overcome challenges in in traversing the healthcare system through the use of trained navigators. The navigators aren’t medical experts – they receive extensive training on the job, and they learn important skills like how to advocate for patients and help them connect with important community resources. 

During a five-year study, six navigators worked with 477 uninsured women in DuPage County who had received abnormal breast or cervical screens. The navigators helped make appointments, provided interpreter services, referred patients to community services and gave emotional support. The results show that those who received help from help from navigators had shorter follow-up times than those who didn’t.
“Healthcare reform in the United States has opened the doors for many, but millions remain uninsured. Community navigator programs may have a key role to play in improving the health of the nation’s most vulnerable populations,” Simon said.

Read the full story.

To learn more about the Feinberg School of Medicine, visit its website.