Alzheimer’s belly-brain connection

UND’s Colin Combs studies role of gut inflammation as an important disease-driving factor for the human brain

Grand Challenges health

In this 2017 file photo, Colin Combs (left), Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Biomedical Sciences, and Harpreet Kaur, postdoctoral research associate, look over lab material and supplies.  UND archival image.

 

Traditional thinking has long held the path to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Now, University of North Dakota biomedical scientist Colin Combs is mapping the exits and mileposts of a superhighway between the brain and stomach to unlock mysteries of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Combs, a UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor and chair of the Department of Biomedical Sciences in UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS), has been awarded a 4-year, $1,420,768 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct the important research.

The project, titled “Communicating Intestinal Inflammation to the Brain in Alzheimer’s Disease,” focuses on improving researchers’ understanding of how the brain communicates with the gastrointestinal tract via the well-established gut-brain axis.

“By focusing on gastrointestinal changes occurring with age, diet or disease, we hope to identify changes that can be targeted to provide novel treatments for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Combs. “This study represents our continuing effort to characterize what we believe are important, disease-driving changes outside of the brain.”

The project’s goal is to define an intestine-based component of disease and assess whether age or chronic inflammatory bowel disease further increase gut “leakiness” and inflammation, both of which may play a role in influencing the progression or severity of Alzheimer’s disease.

Completion of the study will verify the role of gut inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease progression and suggest clinically available therapeutic options as possible treatments for Alzheimer’s targeting the gut-brain axis. In other words, agents involved in gut inflammation might be repurposed to combat the inflammatory component of Alzheimer’s without the need for crossing the blood brain barrier, as most current therapies do.

A longtime faculty member of UND’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, who has made the study of neurodegenerative diseases his professional focus, Combs has been studying Alzheimer’s for decades.

“I am so proud of the accomplishments of Dr. Combs — not only as a leader of the Department and in the School, but as a highly respected and trusted scholar and scientist,” noted SMHS Dean Joshua Wynne, M.D., M.P.H., M.B.A. “The awarding of this extremely competitive grant is further evidence that my high regard for Dr. Combs is widely shared.”

The SMHS is coming off its best research year ever in terms of dollars awarded. Researchers based in the school pulled in a record $30.8 million in FY 2019-20 for projects focused not only on neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s, but cancer, Indigenous health and various infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

“Dr. Combs continues to do outstanding work both in his own scholarship and in his leadership of the Department,” Marc Basson, M.D., Ph.D., M.B.A., the SMHS Senior Associate Dean for Medicine & Research, added. “This new award is synergistic, building upon both his and the School’s strengths in neuroscience, host-pathogen interaction, and intestinal disease.”

Brian James Schill

About the author:

Brian James Schill is the assistant director of the Office of Alumni and Community Relations at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences.