Leading the Vanguard: Alexander Conley

Alexander Conley headshot

VKC Member Alexander Conley, Ph.D., is a research assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. His research is focused on investigating novel pharmacological and non-pharmacological interventions in cognitive aging and neurodegeneration. His work is specifically focused on utilizing neuroimaging techniques including electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to understand the action of these novel therapeutics and their implication in Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions.

In the interview below, Conley shares how he became interested in disability research, describes his current work investigating Alzheimer’s disease in adults with Down syndrome, and shares how becoming a member of the VKC enhances the work he does.

How did your become interested in developmental disabilities research?

My interest into researching aging in developmental disabilities has been driven by the trajectory of my career over the past decade. My research career and focus have been on aging and the diseases of aging, beginning with examining brain changes following stroke and now in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. My path to becoming interested in research into developmental disabilities was driven by delving deeper into the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and in particular reading research explaining the high prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in adults with Down syndrome. The lack of understanding of the differences between the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in adults with Down syndrome and the wider community was a topic that I was drawn to investigate to try and bridge the gap of knowledge.

What are your current research interests/projects?

My research interests focus on understanding the risk of memory loss and decline in older adults, as well as investigating new treatment approaches to try to slow or stop memory loss and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The research looking at risk factors is being conducted in healthy middle-aged adults, but also in adults with Down syndrome, as individuals with Down syndrome are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to the wider population. The projects that I am involved in currently with adults with Down syndrome are trying to understand the mechanisms that lead to memory loss. These focus on the build-up of the misfolded proteins that form the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the brain systems and processes that may be affected by the accumulation of these plaques. We are currently recruiting adults with Down syndrome, aged 18 years and older to investigate these different markers of brain health.

How do you think this research might have an impact in the lives of people with disabilities and their families?

Research into aging and the diseases of later life is important because the populations of adults with developmental disabilities are aging, just like the wider population. In addition, the majority of research into Alzheimer’s disease has not been done in adults with developmental disabilities, so there is less understanding of how this disease progresses. Understanding these differences is important, as while new treatments are being developed for Alzheimer’s disease, these have not been studied in adults with Down syndrome, so we are unaware of whether there are differences in either benefits or risks of these new therapeutics. I am hopeful that my research projects can be beneficial in providing a greater understanding of whether Alzheimer’s disease progresses differently in adults with Down syndrome and also potentially identifying targets for future treatments. Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating disease that greatly affects both the individual suffering from the disease and also their families. Providing better information for more effective treatments of Alzheimer’s disease in adults with Down syndrome has the potential to benefit many people, and I am excited about achieving this outcome.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?

Becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Member was important to me due to their dedication to understanding the impact of developmental disabilities on all aspects of functioning. A benefit of joining the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center was the access to resources that I was unaware of previously. The members of the Kennedy Center have a wealth of experience working with the developmental disability community, which gave them insight into how to work with the community better as partners in understanding the impact of these disabilities. I have been able to learn a great deal from my conversations with other members of the Kennedy Center, and this has made me a better researcher in this field, as I have greater knowledge of the distinct challenges that adults with Down syndrome in particular face in comparison to the wider community. The resources and partnerships that the Kennedy Center has with the Down syndrome community have been instrumental in the success that I have had so far in recruitment for my research into understanding the nature of Alzheimer’s disease in individuals with Down syndrome.

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