Mapping the brain landscape for Alzheimer's disease using artificial intelligence

A major research grant to explore Alzheimer's disease in brains of individuals of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican descent


A team of researchers lead by Brittany Dugger of UC Davis Health has been awarded a $3.8 million grant from the National Institute for Aging (NIA) to help define the neuropathology of Alzheimer’s disease in Hispanic cohorts. The five-year grant will fund the first large-scale initiative to present a detailed description of brain manifestations of the Alzheimer’s disease in individuals of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent.

Brittany Dugger choosing a sample from the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center's brain bank
Brittany Dugger choosing a sample from the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center's brain bank

Hispanics, one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the U.S., have a higher risk of dementia than Non-Hispanic Whites (NHWs). The demographic, genetic and environmental differences between individuals of Hispanic descent and NHWs can lead to different levels of disease risk and presentation.

“There is little information on the pathology of dementia affecting people from minority groups, especially for individuals of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican descent,” said Brittany Dugger, assistant professor at the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UC Davis School of Medicine in Sacramento. “We, at UC Davis Health, are very excited that this grant will allow us to build on our expertise in dementia research to gain better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease in these communities and provide insights to improve prevention and treatment.”

Improving Alzheimer’s disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment

To improve prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s important to study the anatomic and pathologic bases and their link to clinical, genetic and demographic factors.

The research will involve studying donated post-mortem brain tissues of more than 100 people from a diverse group including individuals with heritage from Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican. The brain tissues will come from UC Davis, UC San Diego and Columbia University’s national Alzheimer disease research centers.

Partnering with Michael Keiser from UC San Francisco, the researchers will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to locate different pathologies in the brain and define the neuropathological landscape of the Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Dugger, there is a significant gap in the basic knowledge of the presence, density and location of pathologies commonly found in Alzheimer’s disease setting. Examples of such pathologies include amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The researchers will examine the connection between different pathologies and the presence of other health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high levels of cholesterol and triglycerides.

Hispanics are at a greater risk than NHW of having cerebrovascular disease, a major risk that can co-exist with Alzheimer’s disease

“For example, we will look at the co-presence of cerebrovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dugger. “For people who had strokes, we would like to know, where did these strokes happen? When did they happen? How big they were? Did the patient have other vessel pathologies? How healthy do these vessels look?”

The findings from the study will help develop specific disease profiles for individuals. Disease profiling will set a foundation for precision medicine research to get the right treatment to the right patient at the right time. This approach to medicine reduces disease disparities and advances medicine for all.

Researchers on this grant include Brittany Dugger, Charles DeCarli and Laurel Beckett from UC Davis, Michael Keiser from UC San Francisco, Robert Rissman from UC San Diego and Andrew Teich from Columbia University.

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The UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center is one of only 27 research centers designated by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging. The center's goal is to translate research advances into improved diagnosis and treatment for patients while focusing on the long-term goal of finding a way to prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease. Also funded by the state of California, the center allows researchers to study the effects of the disease on a uniquely diverse population. For more information, visit

UC Davis study: Dementia looks different in brains of Latinos: video

Watch Dr. Dugger talk about artificial intelligence in Alzheimer’s research: video