Exploring how the brain works is something that Louisa Thompson, Ph.D. has been fascinated with since childhood.

She often found herself thumbing through her father’s books on cognitive science and shared many an interesting conversation with him about it. (He has a master’s degree in the subject, though he is an artist by trade). And like too many others, she experienced first-hand the devastating effects of dementia when her grandmother developed the disease.

Those early experiences laid the foundation for the career that Dr. Thompson has built today. They also shaped how she approaches her work at the Memory and Aging Program (MAP) at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where she is a research scientist. She is also an instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, where she recently completed a fellowship in post-doctoral research, and she is a licensed neuropsychologist.

In her role at MAP, Dr. Thompson is on the front lines of medical science in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. At the same time, she’s also deep in the trenches of caring for those affected by the disease in the clinical setting. It’s a dual role that requires a special combination of qualities: a compassionate and caring nature, an objective and scientific mind, and a dogged determination to persist in finding answers even when progress feels painstakingly slow.

Going Beyond a Diagnosis

Louisa Thompson, PhD, research scientist at the Memory and Aging Program and instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

Louisa Thompson, PhD, research scientist at the Memory and Aging Program and instructor in psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

“I really love working with older adults in the clinical setting, but I also wanted to be able to give patients more impactful recommendations and guidance, beyond just giving them a diagnosis,” Dr. Thompson says.

“That’s a big part of what brought me here to the Memory and Aging Program. I feel like research and clinical practice really complement each other,” she says.

“My research makes me a better practitioner on the clinical side, and providing clinical care makes me more connected to the population that I’m researching.”

Dr. Thompson joined the Memory and Aging team as a research fellow in 2017, drawn to the program because of its affiliation with Brown University, its reputation in the field, and the opportunity to work with a leader in the field whom she’d seen in the news, MAP Director Dr. Stephen Salloway.

In her time at the program, Dr. Thompson’s work has been primarily focused on developing better methods for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, before symptoms become apparent. Early detection provides a much greater ability to slow or even one day prevent its progression, as research in that area continues.

Developing New and Better Methods of Detection – The First Step in Prevention

Dr. Thompson is currently working to expand the research opportunities available to participants of the program’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Registry. The registry pairs people ages 40 to 85 with ongoing and future studies for which they may qualify. (Registry sign-up is available online at butler.org/ALZregistry.)

“I’m developing a protocol for cognitive assessment that people could participate in every one to two years to get their memory checked. I’m also interested in developing new types of technology and tools that make assessments easier, more standardized and better at capturing a wide range of data,” Dr. Thompson says.

“Things like using digital pens to measure cognitive speed and spatial thinking during drawing tests, as well as using smart phone apps or tablets to do assessments at home, in the primary care setting and even out in the community.”

Dr. Thompson will also be the primary psychologist for a new study, called “ARIAS,” that’s set to begin by the end of 2019. The study is evaluating the use of a simple eye exam to detect certain changes in the eye, specifically the presence of amyloid plaques similar to those found in the brains of people affected by Alzheimer’s, and determine if that can be used a as a reliable biomarker of developing disease.

But what happens after the screening if someone finds out they’re at high risk or already showing signs of the disease? Is it worth knowing? Finding the answers to those important and common questions make up the other major component of Dr. Thompson’s work.

Working alongside MAP Neuropsychologist Dr. Athene Lee, Dr. Thompson is researching the impact on people who choose to find out their genetic risk for Alzheimer’s or if they have biomarkers that indicate they’ll likely develop the disease. The research is ongoing, but the pair presented preliminary data at last year’s Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease conference and this summer’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

Louisa Thompson, PhD (second from right) with her Memory and Aging colleagues at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in 2019. (left to right: Dr. Jessica Alber, Dr. Louisa Thompson, Dr. Stephen Salloway and Dr. Athene Lee.)

Louisa Thompson, PhD (second from right) with her Memory and Aging colleagues at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in 2019. (left to right: Dr. Jessica Alber, Dr. Louisa Thompson, Dr. Stephen Salloway and Dr. Athene Lee.)

“The data analysis is still ongoing, but two things have become apparent early on. One, learning this type of info isn’t for everybody, so the most important first step is education and making sure participants have time to think about how they would feel,” Dr. Thompson says.

“The other thing is that it’s largely well tolerated by the people who do decide they want to know. They’re generally glad they have the information and don’t regret going through it.”

Fostering A Commitment to Finding an End to Alzheimer’s

Dr. Thompson is also passionate about educating the public about what it means to participate in a research study.

“People don’t necessarily realize they can make really significant contributions to Alzheimer’s research even if they don’t have Alzheimer’s,” she says.

“People don’t necessarily realize they can make really significant contributions to Alzheimer’s research even if they don’t have Alzheimer’s,” she says.

Especially with the growing focus on prevention, we’re always looking for cognitively healthy adults with no symptoms to participate in our research, and not just drug trials. There are other studies people can participate in that are purely observational and don’t involve a drug or lifestyle intervention.”

While Dr. Thompson shares the frustration and disappointment that participants feel when studies fail to provide the results or discoveries that were hoped for, she remains committed to the ultimate goal of unraveling the mysteries of Alzheimer’s and she hopes others will, too.

“It’s important to keep in mind the broader picture and that every piece of the puzzle, even if it’s a negative finding, is really important to steering the research in the right direction, and seeing that in our studies has been a really meaningful experience for me,” she says.

“We’re on the cutting edge of research here, we’re not jut reading about it in the news, but we’re pioneering these trials, and that is so rewarding.”

To learn more about the Memory and Aging Program and how you can get involved, visit butler.org/memory.