auriel willette

Dr. Auriel Willette's laboratory examines the impact of obesity on the structure and function of the human brain.

Auriel Willette, assistant professor in food science and human nutrition, and his research team studied how levels of a protein called Cholecystokinin (CCK) could predict a patient's likelihood to develop Alzheimers.

CCK, found in both the intestines and brain, is responsible for breaking down foods and allowing the nutrients to pass through the body. Willette said in a news release he hypothesizes that CCK is important for new memories.

According to the release, the researchers found higher CCK levels decreases an individual's chance of having mild cognitive impairment, a precursor state to Alzheimer’s disease, or Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 65 percent.

This isn't the first study Willette has released examining how the body and brain work together. In an earlier study, Willette found those who have a higher levels of an enzyme called autotaxin display symptoms of Alzheimer’s and type two diabetes. 

Willette’s research focuses on middle-to-older-aged adults, the age when patients are more likely to show symptoms of Alzheimers and type two diabetes.

“I would say it’s more relevant for people more 40 to 65 [years old] or so because they don’t have some of the protective factors anymore,” Willette said.

Willette said he hopes to find a strategy that could help middle aged adults delay their symptoms of Alzheimer's. He said he is curious how diet and exercise could impact the rate of Alzheimer’s symptoms.

Willette also said that a personal goal of his is lessening this financial burden on individuals.

“The big reason for why I do this kind of work is because by 2050 if we can’t find someway of slowing down the disease it’s supposed to cost medicare, and by extension tax payers, about $1.1 trillion a year,” Willette said. “Right now it costs about $250 billion, so you know economically it can be pretty devastating.”

Willette said he understands that purchasing essential medications can be extremely stressful on the individual.

“What really sucks is that the people who have, traditionally speaking, the most trouble being able to have health care or afford it, or who then encounter discrimination, they are more likely to develop disease," Willette said.

“From the economic side, people of lower socioeconomic status — I can speak from experience — they’re just under more chronic stress," Willette said. "And all of that, leads to an increase risk to Alzheimer’s disease."

With more research, Willette said he hopes the team can gain a better understanding on the cause of genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s. In the long run, Willette said he would like to find a genetic map that could help those who have predispositions for Alzheimer’s so they could work on specific lifestyle interventions. He hopes his research will help doctors create a personalized action plan for their patients. 

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