Nadine Connor, PhD, and Michelle Ciucci, PhD, both professors in the Division of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery who have joint appointments in the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders, were recently awarded a five-year, $3.8 million federal research grant to study swallowing problems (also called dysphagia) that can occur in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Dysphagia has significant negative effects on patient health and quality of life and has been understudied, despite its high prevalence and high cost to health care systems. According to Connor and Ciucci, tongue exercise has been shown to improve swallowing function in other populations, but it has not been routinely used or optimized in Alzheimer’s disease for two reasons. First, we don’t know how Alzheimer’s disease affects the areas of the brain and the muscles that are related to swallowing behaviors. Second, we don’t know when in the progression of the disease it is best to start tongue exercise.
The research team will answer these two questions by studying biological mechanisms in a rat model of Alzheimer’s disease at earlier versus later time points in the progression of the disease. “We are very excited to begin this important work that will help to clarify how this devastating disease affects brain regions and muscles involved in swallowing actions, and how to best initiate exercise therapy,” said Connor. This foundational work could be impactful for the large and increasing population of people with Alzheimer’s disease and dysphagia who can benefit from treatments that will be optimized in this study.