Matthew Kenney, a senior biology major, is conducting an experiment for his senior research work to test his hypothesis in order to answer the question, “Can we induce early onset Alzheimer’s through obstructive sleep apnea?”
Kenney plans to perform a five week long experiment with a mouse model to investigate his question.
According to alz.org, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Scientists have hypothesized that there could be a correlation between the sleep apnea and the early onset of the disease’s symptoms.
Any causation studies have yet to be performed, so Kenney’s is the first of its kind. He will work with ten mice, dividing them into one control group and one experimental group. With the help of his research advisor, Dr. Bruce Bethke, Kenney built an airtight hypoxic chamber where the mice will live. At night, the experimental group will have their oxygen cycled from 21% saturation down to 5% and back up to 21%. The oxygen levels will switch every two minutes to mimic the effects of obstructive sleep apnea. The control group will remain at the normal 21% level of oxygen throughout the night.
At the end of the five weeks, Kenney will do a variety of genetic tests on the mice to see if they show any changes in gene expression that would be indicative of Alzheimer’s disease. He will also perform an assortment of spatial and memory tests on his subjects to see if there is a correlation.
The results of Kenney’s experiment could open a new door for Alzheimer’s prevention and research, explained Bethke.
“While the dysfunctions in the brain that lead to the symptoms of confusion, and both memory and cognitive impairment, are fairly well characterized, the triggers leading to these dysfunctions are not,” Bethke, associate professor of biology, said. “An association between obstructive sleep apnea, which impacts about one in 15 adults in the United States, would suggest that at least some cases of Alzheimer’s could be preventable.”
While his is just a small study done at the undergraduate level, Kenney said the results could pave the way for further research and larger studies with human models.
“Studies like this could change the severity of how we treat sleep apnea,” Kenney said. “If we find a link it, could hopefully have an effect on how Alzheimer’s is treated as well.”
Kenney said he got the idea for the experiment after reading about the disease.
“I’ve had family members with Alzheimer’s, so I’ve always had an interest in neurodegenerative disease. I read about the possible correlation and the idea hit me,” Kenney said.
Kenney is originally from Cumberland, Rhode Island, and is a graduate of Bishop Feehan High School. His mother is a nurse practitioner, so he became interested in biology and medicine growing up immersed in the healthcare field.
Kenney came to Saint Vincent to earn his degree in biology, but was unsure of exactly what concentration he wanted to pursue. After spending time volunteering in a nursing home and Latrobe Hospital, Kenney knew he wanted to pursue a medical degree.
He is currently in the process of applying to medical school, and has already been accepted to Campbell University’s School of Osteopathic Medicine.
He also has interviews scheduled with the University of New England and Liberty University, along with pending applications to other schools.
Bethke commends Kenney for his effort during his undergraduate career.
“Much like his work in senior research, Matt has always been a dedicated student who is fully committed to a career in medicine. He will undoubted make a fine physician,” Bethke said.
Kenney is involved with the American Medical Student Association at Saint Vincent, and also enjoys fishing and playing his guitar.
The results of Kenney’s research will be on display for the public at the Saint Vincent academic conference in the spring 2018 semester.
Photo supplied by Kenney