Dentistry professor hopes to take a bite out of Alzheimer’s disease

Periodontal disease is one of the leading causes of tooth loss in adults and may be a risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Periodontal disease is one of the leading causes of tooth loss in adults and may be a risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

A professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry has been awarded a five-year, $1.85 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study a link between periodontal disease and Alzheimer’s disease.  

Periodontitis, characterized by periodontal inflammation and bone loss, is the primary cause of tooth loss in adults and one of the most common human infectious diseases.

Approximately 47 percent of adults age 30 years or older have some form of periodontal disease, and more than 70 percent of adults age 65 years or older have periodontal disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alzheimer’s, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system, affects about 6 million people in the United States today, and its prevalence is expected to reach about 13 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.  

Ping Zhang, DDS, Ph.D.

“Increasing evidence suggests that there is a positive correlation between periodontitis and Alzheimer’s,” said Ping Zhang, DDS, Ph.D. “However, the exact nature of the relationship remains unclear. Supported by a $297,000 pilot grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and NIA, we demonstrated that periodontal infection could accelerate cognitive and behavioral impairments, neuroinflammation, and neurodegeneration in pre-clinical Alzheimer’s models.”

With this five-year support, Zhang and her team will conduct an in-depth investigation into the potential reasoning behind this connection.

Their studies will focus on determining how periodontitis impacts microglia, the primary immune cells in the brain, and the role of the complement system in microglia activation and the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s.

The complement system is a part of the immune system that enhances the immune system’s responses to harmful stimuli.

“Oral health is important for overall health,” Zhang said. “By learning more about the link between periodontitis and Alzheimer’s, we can better understand potential risk factors and help develop prevention methods for Alzheimer’s.”

Zhang’s collaborators at UAB include Sue Michalek, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Microbiology; Jannet Katz, DDS, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the School of Dentistry; Erik Roberson, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neurology, and Peter King, M.D., professor in the Department of Neurology.

Zhang also collaborates with Qin Wang, M.D., Ph.D., professor of neuroscience and regeneration at Augusta University, and Cynthia Lemere, Ph.D., associate professor of neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

Zhang is a clinician scientist with a strong background in microbiology, immunology, and oral infectious disease.  Her research interests include host-microbial interactions in the pathogenesis of oral infectious disease, inflammation and bone loss, and the association of periodontal disease and systemic diseases.

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