Press Release

Promising new ENIGMA study launches to determine factors contributing to brain aging

As part of the ENIGMA Consortium, the India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health is a worldwide coordinated study of brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease to identify predictive markers in the blood, genome, and epigenome, and to better understand prognosis while supporting personalized risk evaluations.

Sidney Taiko Sheehan February 21, 2023
The India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health research team. (Photo: Bhuvan Manjunatha Swamy, Project Coordinator, India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health)
The India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health research team.(Photo: Bhuvan Manjunatha Swamy, Project Coordinator, India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health)

As part of an effort to address a diversity crisis in brain research, a USC-led brain research consortium is launching a massive data-gathering initiative in India. By 2050, 79% of the world’s population over age 60 will live in developing countries, with 20% in India, according to the United Nations. Yet most brain research has been conducted in Caucasian populations from relatively wealthy backgrounds. This lack of ethnic diversity means that we do not know if predictors of health and disease generalize to other ethnic groups, and researchers struggle to collect vital data that could teach us how Alzheimer’s disease progresses in populations with different genetic and environmental backgrounds.

The India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health research project was launched at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India earlier this month. The five-year project is aimed at bridging the knowledge gap around the various factors influencing the acceleration of brain aging. To do this, a team of experts will leverage their global working group, the ENIGMA Consortium, to partner with dementia research pioneers in India, creating new links between international biobanks, and building research capacity.

“The goal of the ENIGMA Consortium is to bring together researchers in all fields of medicine and neuroscience to understand brain structure, function, and disease, based on brain imaging and genetic data. Our coordinated analyses of biobanks in the United States, European Union, and India will help identify brain aging predictors specific to the Indian population and those that are universal.” said Paul M. Thompson, PhD, associate director of the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (Stevens INI) at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and co-founder and leader of the ENIGMA Consortium. The Stevens INI has a long history of working with India, including their work on the Diagnostic Assessment of Dementia for the Longitudinal Aging Study in India (LASI-DAD), an in-depth study of late-life cognition and dementia, drawing a subsample of the Longitudinal Aging Study in India (LASI). LASI is a nationally representative survey of the health, economic, and social well-being of the Indian population aged 45 and older. Its large sample of over 72,000 adults represents not only the country as a whole, but also each state.

To be conducted at NIMHANS, the India ENIGMA Initiative for Global Aging and Mental Health study will involve 400 volunteer participants, including healthy older adults and those with memory impairment. This study includes comprehensive assessment of risk and protective factors through clinical interview, memory and cognitive tests, bloodwork, and brain MRI. Researchers from NIMHANS and the Stevens INI are working together and will follow up with the participants over two years to understand the contribution of these factors to the risk of developing dementia. Neda Jahanshad, PhD, and Lauren Salminen, PhD, of the Stevens INI are also co-investigators on the project.

Co-principal investigator of the project and NIMHANS Professor Dr. John P. John notes that the study participants are being recruited now. “We have called back 100 people who have participated in previous studies, so we can compare their current and previous brain scans, blood test results, and more. We are actively reaching out to senior citizens in both urban and rural areas to volunteer. We are immensely grateful to all who are willing to participate,” noted Dr. John.

In India for the launch, Thompson spoke on the role of brain imaging in aging and dementia. He also discussed the role of the ENIGMA Consortium as one of the world’s largest databases of brain images in various neuropsychiatric disorders.

“We are thrilled to team up with leading neuroscientists from India and senior citizens from the Indian community to discover factors that help us age successfully. Over 25 people have already signed up at our launch meeting alone. They will all have advanced brain scans, novel blood tests, and in-depth assessments of their family history, lifestyle, and social factors that impact brain aging and mental health,” said Thompson.

This study will use novel machine learning methods to hypothesize how brain aging depends on lifestyle and psychosocial factors such as diet, family support, literacy, sleep, education, genetic risks, and more. The researchers will leverage ENIGMA’s successful strategies to train emerging and established scientists in India to analyze their data with high quality control and precision, with targeted workshops to bolster capacity. This collaborative India-US initiative will enable future science initiatives and equip the NIMHANS team with the necessary tools to train new scientists and independently conduct high impact research bridging efforts into numerous international partnerships.

This research is supported by the National Institute of Aging. More information on the project is available here.