research Corner: Dr. Kevin Sullivan

Dr. Kevin Sullivan, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Geriatrics and the MIND center. Here, he shares about his background, research interests, and recent work related to Alzheimer’s Disease and cognitive impairment.

Dr. Kevin Sullivan

What is your professional background?

I am a geriatric epidemiologist specializing in cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and related dementias. I received my PhD in cognitive psychology from the University of Maine and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh in the epidemiology of aging. Currently, I serve as the Assistant Director of the Neuroepidemiology Core at the UMMC Memory Impairment and Neurodegenerative Dementia (MIND) Center.

Tell us about the ARIC study.

The Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study is an ongoing longitudinal cohort study that recruited over 15,000 middle-aged participants in 1987 from four US communities: Jackson, MS; Washington County, MD; Forsyth County, North Carolina; Suburbs of Minneapolis, MN. The study has conducted seven in-person examinations since its inception, and has made numerous contributions to current knowledge of risk factors for cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, and dementia. As an ARIC study site, UMMC and the MIND Center are actively involved in cutting edge research of factors related to Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment. We owe great thanks to the staff and older adults participants of the ARIC study for their contributions to science over several decades. A few impactful papers that have risen from the ARIC study can be found here and here.

What are you working on now?

My current work focuses on blood- and brain-based biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease. The identification of blood-based markers of the Alzheimer’s disease process, which is the single most common pathological cause of dementia, is an active research area with large implications for early identification of at-risk individuals. Blood assays have considerable advantages in cost and ease of administration, but their utility is ultimately dependent on sensitivity and specificity to the gold standard measurements of Alzheimer’s disease pathology, which currently are positron emission tomography and cerebrospinal fluid assays requiring a spinal tap. Our studies and others suggest that circulating proteins in the blood are indeed informative regarding risk of dementia, potentially even if measured decades before symptoms are clinically apparent. These findings provide insight into the lengthy, insidious, pathological cascade of Alzheimer’s disease, while also potentially widening the window for preventative interventions as they continue to be developed.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing research?

Perhaps more so than any other research field, clinical and public health research benefits immensely from the involvement of professionals with various backgrounds, specialties, and skillsets. You likely already have experience that provides a unique and beneficial impact to a research effort. Focus on what you can bring to the table now, while recognizing that a lack of formal training in research methodology can only be overcome by active participation in the process. If you are interested in pursuing research at UMMC, reach out to individuals who are involved in the various ongoing studies here and explore opportunities to contribute and learn. There are many ways to get involved!

What do you like most about UMMC?

UMMC fosters the interdisciplinary research culture that I alluded to above. Working at a dementia research clinic, it is invaluable to collaborate with geriatricians, neurologists, biostatisticians, epidemiologists, geneticists, and the incredible research and clinic staff that have kept large population studies running here for decades. It is a joy to participate in research at an institution that so values collaboration and mentorship.

Check out some of Dr. Sullivan’s recent work:

Imaging-based indices of Neuropathology and gait speed decline in older adults: the atherosclerosis risk in communities study

Alzheimer’s disease pathology in a community-based sample of older adults without dementia: The MYHAT neuroimaging study

Declining Incident Dementia Rates Across Four Population-Based Birth Cohorts

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