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OKLAHOMA CITY – A scientist with the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation received a grant to study a possible connection between dopamine cells and Alzheimer’s disease.

Michael Beckstead, Ph.D., received the one-year, $400,000 grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Officials with OMRF say dopamine is “a chemical responsible for voluntary movement and the perception of reward in the brain.”

Beckstead studies what can happen when things go wrong with dopamine neurons, which ranges from Parkinson’s disease when too little is present, to drug addiction when there is too much.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease affects 5.8 million Americans, and one in three senior citizens dies with the disease or other forms of dementia.

“Alzheimer’s is the most commonly diagnosed neurodegenerative disorder and has a strong association with aging,” said Beckstead. “In addition to what we know of Alzheimer’s and cognitive deficits and impairments, we are learning that there also are a slew of non-cognitive symptoms that can appear well before severe memory deficits begin.”

Early non-cognitive signs of the disease include depression, trouble sleeping and apathy.

“Dopamine is what makes you want to get off the couch and enjoy activities,” Beckstead said. “Although dopamine has never been studied in context with Alzheimer’s, we have a lot of evidence to suggest that it’s involved, especially in the initial stages of disease.”

With the grant, Beckstead will study “dopamine systems in mouse models of Alzheimer’s to look for any measurable change of function in the cells early on in the disease process.”

“It’s a simple question that nobody has ever asked. I am a firm believer that treatments for a lot of brain diseases will come from targeting specific cellular pathways,” he said. “There are no approved treatments yet, but we’ve only had the technology to do this work for a few years.”

If he can identify early changes, it could allow researchers to develop a drug or other interventions that stop the disease before it spreads.