Gary Rosenberg, MD
Gary Rosenberg, MD. Credit: Rebecca Gustaf

A University of New Mexico neurologist has joined a new national consortium to study small blood vessel disease in the brain to assess its role in contributing to cognitive impairment and dementia.

Gary Rosenberg, MD, director of UNM’s Memory & Aging Center, is studying telltale biomarkers in magnetic resonance imaging and cerebrospinal fluid for evidence of injury to white matter – the tissue that surrounds neurons in the brain and helps transmit signals.

Rosenberg’s team is one of seven research groups working to develop biomarkers for small vessel involvement in vascular cognitive impairment and dementia (VCID). He recently received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

There is an urgent need to study small vessel disease, which limits the blood supply to the brain and may damage white matter and impair the function of nearby neurons. VCID can cause dementia symptoms on its own, but may also worsen symptoms for a substantial number of Alzheimer’s patients, Rosenberg said.

“We’re developing biomarkers that will help us identify the subgroup that we want to treat,” Rosenberg said. “It’s unique and exciting that we’re in on the ground floor. This will set the stage for the next 10 years in vascular dementia treatment.”

Members of the MarkVCID consortium held a kickoff meeting in Houston Feb. 20-21 prior to the International Stroke Conference 2017, Rosenberg said. The consortium includes researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, Johns Hopkins University, Rush University Medical Center, Boston University Medical Campus, University of Southern California and the University of Kentucky.

The project’s leader is Steven M. Greenberg, MD, PhD, director of the Hemorrhagic Stroke Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“We have brought together a number of outstanding research groups to further develop and validate candidate biomarkers for cerebral small vessel disease,” Greenberg said in a statement. “This will be achieved by identifying and focusing on the most promising biomarkers across the research sites.”

VCID can potentially be treated, if it is caught early enough. That’s why it’s important to develop tests to diagnose the condition before symptoms worsen. It is hoped that with multiple teams working to validate and standardize the diagnostic tests a new era of treatment may lie on the horizon.

Rosenberg says UNM’s new Memory & Aging Center, housed in Pete and Nancy Domenici Hall, is uniquely equipped to conduct this research. It has lab space, a clinical research area where patients can be seen and access to the advanced neuroimaging methods (including MRI) and image processing capabilities of the Mind Research Network, which shares the building.