This Funder is Giving Big to Move the Needle for Alzheimer’s Research

Last April, the BrightFocus Foundation announced $11.7 million in grants to back promising scientific research projects to better understand and hopefully, find cures for Alzheimer’s, age-related macular degeneration, and glaucoma. The grant round marked the foundation’s largest annual investment.

Formerly known as the American Health Assistance Foundation, BrightFocus has been around since the early 1970s and was established with the mission of driving “innovative research,” to promote “awareness of Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma.” While all three diseases are subject to early onset, BrightFocus is zeroing in on Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma as they relate to age, with Alzheimer’s a clear frontrunner for the foundation’s funding.

Related: BrightFocus Gives Big to Alzheimer’s Disease Research

In announcing the new grants last year, Stacy Pagos Heller, president and CEO of BrightFocus. said: “We must act with greater urgency than ever,” not only because the sheer number of people turning 65 every day, but according to BrightFocus, over 5 million Americans currently suffer from Alzheimer’s. That number could grow to more than 14 million by mid-century.

BrightFocus has certainly been on the case here as it has devoted over $160 million to research projects since its inception back in 1973. To date, the foundation has backed over 1,300 projects around the world and currently supports more than 150 research grants. Most of those funding dollars—over $100 million have gone to support the foundation’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Program.

Keeping in line with its Alzheimer’s funding focal point, around half of the foundation’s $11.7 million grant round last year went to back 27 Alzheimer’s research. BrightFocus tends to cap its funding at about $300,000. Some of the perhaps more interesting projects receiving that top award include:

  • A study at Johns Hopkins University led by Jason Brandt who is researching whether special diets used to treat brain disorders can be applied to the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
  • Iman Aganj’s ongoing work at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School involving brain imaging and brain network analysis to “help reveal the structural basis of Alzheimer’s,” and to gain a better understanding of the disease impacts the brain.
  • Research work conducted by Patrick Kehoe at the UK-based University of Bristol involving the use of “old drugs for new purposes,” in Alzheimer’s testing and treatment.

While Jennifer R. Gatchel at McLean Hospital/Massachusetts General Hospital didn’t receive one of the top awards of $300,000, she and her team deserve an honorable mention. Gatchel and company received a $100,000 award for their study concerning the “psychiatric and behavioral symptoms,” that “may occur vary early in the disease process.” According to Gatchel, a clear understanding as to why or how these symptoms occur does not exist and there are “few effective treatments.”

Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma pose serious health concerns when it comes to age associated conditions. With more and more people reaching the age of 65 each year—an average of 10,000 per day, every day until about 2030—all three diseases are have been coming into sharper focus in the public health landscape, Alzheimer’s in particular.

In 2005, the CDC established the Health Brain Initiative and with a little help from hundreds of key stakeholders and funding from Congress, the five-year program developed a blueprint to help guide a “coordinated public health response.” Six years later, in 2011, President Barack Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) into law. The following year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services referred to Alzheimer’s as a “major public issue.” And while government backing and related projects are a critical piece of the funding puzzle here, private funders, like BrightFocus play a crucial role as well.

And BrightFocus isn’t alone when it comes to fighting Alzheimer’s. While funding for the disease and other neurological disorders often comingle—which is a good thing—Alzheimer’s is a top funding matter for the likes of the GHR Foundation and Geoffrey Beene Foundation. GHR has committed over $17 million to scale research and Geoffrey Beene’s Alzheimer’s Initiative has contributed more than $4.8 million to new awareness, research, and diagnosis projects revolving around the early stages of the disease.

Related: Another Step in the Long March Against Alzheimer’s

The Paul Allen Foundation has also been a player here, having made $7 million in grants to five Alzheimer's research teams at institutions in the U.S. and England in 2015. More recently, the sorority Sigma Kappa gave $1 million to the Alzheimer’s Association. Then, of course, there is the monster $185 million commitment made by Joan and Sanford Weill to the University of California, San Francisco. The gift will establish the Weill Institute for Neurosciences, which will research a host of neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s.

Related: Three Key Things to Know About That Giant Neuroscience Gift

Some may criticize big gifts like that of the Weill’s and Paul Allen's as emotionally driven philanthropy—both Sandy Weill’s mother and Paul Allen’s mother had Alzheimer’s—but there's a lot at stake here for the rest of society, too, given the huge and growing economic toll of Alzheimer's. It's no exaggeration to say that this disease poses one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st century.