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Medical Center Awarded $6 Million to Study Aging and Cognition

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Learning more about the decline in learning and memory that can accompany aging is the focus of a $6.2 million grant Wake Forest University School of Medicine has been awarded from the National Institute on Aging.

“We will address key changes in the brain that contribute to cognitive decline and forms of dementia commonly observed in the elderly, including Alzheimer’s disease,” said William E. Sonntag, Ph.D., project leader. He is a professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology.

The five-year grant will allow researchers to continue studies in rodents to learn more about the biological basis for cognitive decline with age. The research team focuses on several hormones, such as human growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), that decline naturally with age. They have shown previously that levels of these hormones are an important contributing factor in the decline in learning and memory with age and that restoring these hormones improves learning and memory in older animals. Other scientists have confirmed their findings in elderly humans.

The research team uses a special strain of dwarf rats that are naturally deficient in both growth hormone and IGF-1. The animals will be treated with the hormones to determine how these hormones affect cognitive function and to establish their specific mechanisms of action.

The researchers have previously shown that these hormones increase blood flow, regulate the replacement of damaged cells and improve cell-to-cell communication within the brain. Studies over the next five years will focus on whether these hormones improve function of blood vessels, and cell-to-cell communication and reduce inflammation that normally increases with age.

Co-investigators are Judy Brunso-Bechtold, Ph.D., neurobiology and anatomy, David Riddle, Ph.D., neurobiology and anatomy, Delrae Eckman, Ph.D., pediatrics, Michelle Nicolle, Ph.D., gerontology, and Haiying Chen, Ph.D., public health sciences.


Media Contacts: Karen Richardson,, or Shannon Koontz,, 336-716-4587.

Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center is an academic health system comprised of North Carolina Baptist Hospital and Wake Forest University Health Sciences, which operates the university’s School of Medicine. U.S. News & World Report ranks Wake Forest University School of Medicine 18th in family medicine, 20th in geriatrics, 25th in primary care and 41st in research among the nation's medical schools. It ranks 32nd in research funding by the National Institutes of Health. Almost 150 members of the medical school faculty are listed in Best Doctors in America.

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