Press Release

Tackling Health Disparities: Alzheimer’s and sleep issues for African Americans

Sidney Taiko Sheehan January 11, 2022
Karen D. Lincoln, PhD, MSW, MA, FGSA, of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work
Jeiran Choupan, PhD, MSCS, of the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute

In recent years, the scientific community has engaged in a necessary transformation to acknowledge and address health disparities. One of the keys to addressing health disparities is making clinical and scientific research more inclusive. USC Researchers in medical and scientific disciplines are making it a priority to engage underserved populations and increase participation in research, so the results will better reflect and benefit the diverse society in which we live.

With an internal grant by the Strategic Directions for Research Award program, Jeiran Choupan, PhD, MSCS, of the Keck School’s USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute (USC INI) has teamed up with Karen D. Lincoln, PhD, MSW, MA, FGSA, of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work to address the need for more studies of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in African Americans.

“Our project aims to understand the connection between poor sleep leading to AD in African Americans. We will employ leading neuroimaging technologies at the USC INI to map the brain clearance system in individuals with and without sleep problems,” remarks Choupan. “Our work opens a new framework to detect early changes of the brain clearance system in early stages of cognitive decline before the deposition of abnormal proteins leads to tissue damage. We are optimistic that our study will advance understanding of the role of sleep and brain clearance in cognitive decline in older African American adults.”

The key scientific premise of this research is that specific critical components of the sleep cycle regulate the function of the clearance system, and low amounts of deep sleep causes global changes in brain health, contributing to AD pathology. This study could illuminate aspects of the role of sleep disruption on AD pathology and cognitive symptoms in African Americans – a population with significant risk of AD who currently suffer excessive burden from this disease. Choupan and Lincoln are also joined by Michael Chee-Kuan Khoo, PhD, of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, who will assist with interpreting sleep data from a device used by participants.

“African Americans have the poorest sleep quality and the highest risk of AD in the US. This study is not only crucial for shedding light on the link between sleep and cognitive decline, but I hope that it will raise awareness about environmental and social conditions that lead to poor sleep quality in African Americans, and ultimately to AD and other health disparities that can be prevented. Getting a good night’s sleep is one way to reduce your risk for AD and other types of dementia,” says Lincoln. She will manage recruiting, engaging and enrolling participants into the study, which will also include participants from her existing cohort of middle-aged and older African Americans.

“I’m thrilled to see these experts collaborate,” says USC INI Director Arthur W. Toga, PhD. “Multimodal and multidisciplinary research are essential to tackle such a significant disease, and I’m pleased to lend the resources of the INI to more studies that also address health disparities. I look forward to seeing the promising results of this work.”

The INI is also involved in a collaborative effort known as the Health and Aging Brain among Latino Elders (HABLE) study to examine AD in Mexican Americans. The team is performing cognitive tests, blood work, and brain scans on 2,000 participants—half Mexican American and half non-Hispanic white. The INI is responsible for storing, processing, and analyzing the brain scans collected during the study. Similarly, the INI is a member of the Health & Aging Brain Study – Health Disparities (HABS-HD) cohort. This is the first large-scale multi-ethnic, community-based project with the goal of developing precision medicine and prevention strategies for AD across the three most prevalent racial/ethnic groups in the US, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and non-Hispanic whites.

To inquire about participation in this study (brain clearance system alteration and cognitive decline in African Americans with poor sleep quality), please contact Karen D. Lincoln, PhD, MSW, MA, FGSA at