'Dear Abby' Helps Scientist Recruit Alzheimer's Research Volunteers

by Staff Writer
December 14, 2023 at 10:05 AM UTC

Dr. Reisa Sperling from Harvard Medical School turned to the "Dear Abby" column for help in recruiting participants for this pivotal Alzheimer's research.

Clinical Relevance: Researchers can get creative when recruiting study volunteers

  • The AHEAD Study, focusing on Alzheimer’s prevention, is exploring lecanemab, a newly FDA-approved drug, to prevent amyloid plaque buildup in at-risk individuals.
  • Reisa Sperling, MD of Harvard Medical School, turned to the Dear Abby column for help in recruiting participants.
  • Sperling’s initiative underlines the unique approach of using popular media platforms for scientific research recruitment, aiming to bridge the gap between research and public participation.

Forget referral networks, clinical trial registries, and direct outreach. One of the lead researchers of the AHEAD Study on Alzheimer’s disease has reached out to Dear Abby for advice on how to recruit volunteers to her trial. 

Seeking Advice

“After decades of research, I’m thrilled with the recent major progress being made in treatments for people who already have symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m hoping that, one day, we will be able to prevent people from developing memory impairment and dementia,” Reisa Sperling, MD of Harvard Medical School, wrote to the famous advice columnist. “As a neurologist, a clinical researcher and someone who has seen Alzheimer’s in my own family, I’m grateful we are seeing such progress in our field. But, Abby, we need help from your readers to test these promising medications before the devastating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are apparent.”

The AHEAD Study is investigating lecanemab (Leqembi), a newly FDA-approved Alzheimer’s treatment. The goal of the study is to see if the drug can prevent the buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brains of people at risk. Participants receive either lecanemab or a placebo every two weeks for the first year of treatment, then every four weeks for another year. Throughout the study, the researchers will perform brain scans on the subjects to track amyloid levels.

The research will help the investigators determine whether or not lecanemab is effective for slowing or halting the earliest brain changes due to Alzheimer’s disease in people with a higher risk of developing dementia later in life. “This “asymptomatic” stage may be the perfect time to test treatments aiming to delay or prevent symptoms before they begin,” Sperling wrote to the advice columnist. 

Recruiting Challenges

Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease affecting over 6 million Americans, remains a medical enigma. Despite progress in unraveling the mysteries of its underlying mechanisms, no cure exists. Patients experience progressive and irreversible decline in their memory, cognition, and ultimately, independence.

Recruiting participants for this kind of  study often presents a challenge. Fear of the unknown, complex screening procedures, and logistical hurdles can deter potential volunteers, hindering crucial research efforts. 

Abby has been a household name for decades. Pauline Phillips founded the Dear Abby column in 1956 under the pen name “Abigail Van Buren”. Jeanne Phillips, Pauline’s daughter, began co-writing the column with her mother in 1987 and officially took over as the sole author in 2002. Pauline Phillips passed away in 2013.

The column’s ability to connect with millions of readers on a personal level could help Sperling’s plea resonate with individuals facing Alzheimer’s themselves or within their families. But whether Abby proves to be a successful recruitment tool remains to be seen. Either way, Sperling’s creative approach has sparked a conversation about how to bridge the gap between scientific research and public participation. It’s a conversation that could ultimately lead to breakthroughs in the fight against Alzheimer’s and other debilitating neurodegenerative diseases.

Trial Information

Not only did “Abby” thank Sperling for her letter, she went one step further by asking readers to consider volunteering for any clinical trial that furthers Alzheimer’s research. 

“Approximately 55,000 volunteers are needed for more than 180 clinical trials,” she wrote. “In addition to the AHEAD study, the Alzheimer’s Association offers TrialMatch, a free service that connects people living with dementia, caregivers and healthy volunteers to clinical trials. Clinical trial volunteers are key to better treatments, prevention strategies and a future cure for Alzheimer’s disease.”

The columnist told readers how to contact the AHEAD trial by calling 800-243-2370 or visiting AHEADstudy.org. She also suggested visiting trialmatch.alz.org or calling 800-272-3900 to learn more about additional trials.

Further Reading:

Alzheimer’s Drug Leqembi Granted Full FDA Approval

Alzheimer’s Disease Clinical Resource Center

Congressional Report Exposes Flaws in Alzheimer’s Drug Approval

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