The inaugural Symposium for Learning about Alzheimer’s Disease Medical Research at Duke and UNC (SLAM-DUNC) took place on June 24th and 25th at Duke University’s Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center in Durham, North Carolina. The symposium was filled with inspiration and conversations about the Duke – UNC Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center’s (ADRC) work to bring together leading researchers in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias across the two major research institutions. Hosted by the ADRC Research Education Component (REC) Core, SLAM-DUNC launched with remarks for the core leaders, Dr. Jan Busby-Whitehead, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Dr. Kyle Walsh, Duke University. The education arm of ADRC, the REC Core’s primary goal is to support early career Alzheimer’s disease (AD) researchers and develop future leaders in AD and related dementias scientific field. Chelsea Perfect, Duke School of Medicine resident, felt optimistic about the missions of the Duke-UNC ADRC after speaking at SLAM-DUNC. “I greatly appreciated the opportunity to present my health services research on caring for those with dementia and mild cognitive impairment. The SLAM-DUNC conference was a fantastic opportunity to learn about all the ADRD research occurring across the research spectrum and the universities. It gives me hope to see the amazing collaborative ongoing ADRD work.”
Friday night launched the conference off with structured networking and an informal happy hour. Researchers, clinicians, trainees, and students gathered to discuss the leading aims of the Duke-UNC ADRC Research Cores: Biomarker; Clinical; Data Management and Statistics; Outreach, Recruitment and Engagement; and Neuropathology. Focused on lowering barriers to research, education, and collaboration, the SLAM-DUNC Symposium was purposefully designed to encourage conversations between scientists of all different career levels who just happen to represent institutions from one of college basketball’s biggest rivals! . “I enjoyed sharing my science to people with diverse research backgrounds and learning about Alzheimer’s disease from various angles that I am not familiar with. In addition, I received valued career-building advice from leaders in the field during networking sessions and happy hours. Overall, it is a great opportunity for early-stage researchers to learn the cutting-edge knowledge, forge collaborations, and explore potential career pathways.” (Jui-Heng “Henry” Tseng, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC School of Medicine, Neurology).
Saturday began with a keynote address from Dr. Jason Karlawish, MD, Professor of Medicine, Geriatrics, at the Pearlman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Karlawish spoke about the mental toll Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis has on a patient and the dangers of stigmas and prejudices those living with Alzheimer’s disease may face from their communities. Following Dr. Karlawish’s presentation, ADRC trainees presented research findings from both clinical and basic science projects. Melissa Harris, PhD, RN, REC Scholar and clinical associate from Duke School of Nursing, gave a talk on “Development of a home-based stress management toolkit for dementia caring dyads.” Christopher Lew, 3rd year medical student at Duke School of Medicine, presented “Predicting PET biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease with MRI using deep convolutional neural networks.”
The morning session wrapped up with inspirational messages from both Duke’s Coach K and UNC’s Coach Williams. Both coaches stressed the importance of collaboration between the two universities in tackling Alzheimer’s disease. Coach Williams shared his own personal history with Alzheimer’s disease, “Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias have impacted so many families. Finding better treatments and someday even a cure is more than a game and I am grateful that Carolina and Duke are teaming together and partnering with other universities across the state of North Carolina to slam dunk this awful disease.”
A robust poster session was held after lunch with groups of student researchers presenting their work on the various aspects of Alzheimer’s disease. Jenna Merenstein, from Duke University, presented her poster titled “Age-Related Differences in Selective Attention during Feature Search and Conjunction Search, an FMRI Study.” “My research uses magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the effect of normal brain aging on various cognitive abilities (learning, memory, attention). As an early career researcher with the ultimate goal of opening my own laboratory, my attendance at the 2022 SLAM-DUNC conference was fundamental. The conference helped me bridge connections between molecular research and clinical practice for individuals living with dementia and allowed me to expand my network across the Triangle Area. Events such as these are critical to holistically understand Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that will become increasingly common as the number of individuals beyond age 65+ doubles over the next few decades.”
Working under the guidance of Dr. Walsh, Archita Khaire, a high school student from North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, presented her poster supported by the Duke-UNC ADRC. “ This is not only an excellent informative and educational experience but it’s also a great platform for students to discover new interests, share their research with a large community of researchers, and explore future opportunities. In my research we integrated GWAS and PheWAS data to identify substantial pleiotropy between genetic determinants of LOAD and of platelet morphology, and for the first time implicate EGFR – a mediator of β-amyloid toxicity – in Alzheimer’s disease susceptibility. I am grateful to my mentor, Dr. Kyle Walsh of Duke University, for his guidance in completing this research.”
The symposium resumed after the poster session with a keynote address from Dr. Todd Cohen, Associate Professor in the department of Neurology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. Cohen presented “Our aging brains: a tug-of war between pathology and resiliency.” Dr. Cohen discussed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and stressed the importance of early testing.
The symposium concluded with three scholar presentations from Duke-UNC ADRC partner institutions: University of North Carolina – Pembroke, North Carolina Central University, and East Carolina University. Through partnerships with other North Carolina research institutions, Duke-UNC ADRC aims to catalyze and support innovations in clinical care and academic research. The SLAM-DUNC Symposium is slated to take place annually to inspire young and advanced scholars. Mallory Feldman, Graduate Research Scientist at UNC-Chapel Hill stated, “As a young scholar new to research on AD and related dementias — I learned so much at the inaugural SLAM-DUNC conference. I feel invigorated by the incredible work happening here in the research triangle, and even more motivated to pursue this line of research. It was especially empowering to see the community, support, and resources available through the Duke-UNC ADRC.”
Best poster awards went to Eric Griffith, PhD and Kathleen R. Walter, PhD. Dr. Griffith’s poster focused on his research about Alzheimer’s Disease Diagnosis-Seeking in Mexico and the United States: Barriers and Motivations. Dr. Griffith is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. Dr. Walter’s poster presentation was on Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Causes Persistent Neuroinflammation and Age- and Sex- Specific Effects on Cognition and Metabolic Outcomes in an Alzheimer’s Disease Mouse Model. Dr. Walter is a Research Fellow in Dr. Sandra Mooney’s lab at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Through thoughtful interactions like SLAM-DUNC, effective mentorship, and collaborative research sharing, the Duke-UNC ADRC’s ultimate goal is to advance the field of Alzheimer’s research and lessen the burden of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias regionally and nationally. To learn more about the center and discover how you can get involved, visit the Duke-UNC ADRC website (https://dukeuncadrc.org/).