NC A&T Professor seeks answers to Alzheimer’s

Since the start of her Alzheimer’s work in 2003, Goldi Byrd, now chair of the department of biological sciences at N.C. A&T State University, has focused on the African-American population. In the beginning, she studied the science; now she also looks at the social factors and perceptions about health studies in the African-American community.

“I have a vested interest in Alzheimer’s; it certainly runs in my family. It’s a disease I don’t feel like is well studied or well understood in African-Americans,” Byrd said.

Byrd’s team participates in community activities, visits churches, meets with pastors, civic group heads and leaders both in and out of the North Carolina region to help the community understand what the team is trying to accomplish scientifically – gathering blood samples and conducting cognitive and neurological assessments to accumulatedata on the genes in a little-studied population.

This is particularly tough, she said, because African-Americans traditionally distrust scientific studies.

“Some groups may have had negative experiences in research studies and/or the health care system; there may be a general lack of trust which can influence participation and study outcomes,” clinical associate professor Sara Corwin and assistant professor Daniela Friedman of the Department of Health Promotion, Education and Behavior at the University of South Carolina, who are not involved in the study, said in an e-mail.

Byrd’s goal is to look at the entire genome to identify specific genes at play in African-American patients with Alzheimer’s to understand why this population is more susceptible to the disease.

Little is known about how genetics play a part in the disease, especially as it relates to African-Americans, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s as Caucasians, she said.

Once she gathers the 2,000 participants needed for a genome-wide association study – she’s now at the 1,500 mark – she and her collaborators will analyze blood samples in search of distinguishing genetic markers, comparing these across races. Additionally, the team will run brain scans on a subset of the study’s population.

Byrd involves both undergraduates and graduate students in her community outreach and research, funded by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, N.C. A&T and the National Institute on Aging.

“If something comes out – if there’s a genetic marker that is of significant interest – I’d like to see the process towards some sort of therapeutic. We’d certainly like to improve therapeutics and preventive medicine,” Byrd said.

In searching for participants, Byrd has gathered survey data that show African-Americans are willing to participate in research studies out of a sense of civic duty. She has found that educating the participants and being culturally sensitive, plus having a staff including African-Americans, have increased involvement and the success of the study.

“It is important to understand people’s attitudes and beliefs about health and disease prevention so that we are able to tailor our health interventions and messages, which in turn can improve people’s health.”

“We’ve become a resource for the African-American community. They can call the department here and get some support, get some help with caregiving if they need it or with questions about medications. We try to be a presence in the community,” Byrd said.

And she reaches out to more than her community: In 2009 Byrd received the UNC system’s Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor awarded in North Carolina for teaching at a university level. Byrd mentors high school, undergraduate and graduate students who conduct research in her lab and directs two National Institutes of Health undergraduate summer research programs. For the summer programs, students are invited to participate in faculty research projects and learn about careers in science and internship opportunities as well as gain preparation, leadership and academic experience for science doctoral programs.

“African-Americans are much more burdened by the disease, and, relatively, there’s so little research on the profile of this disease in African-Americans. What we know about it should not be generalized to any other population,” Byrd said. “To generalize what we know about one population for another population is a very dangerous thing to do.”

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