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Health & Fitness

The Bodybuilder Who Wants to Fix Our Brains

Dr. Sid O'Bryant is seeking to uncover the secrets of Alzheimer's.
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The northside neighborhood of Fort Worth is about 3 miles from the shiny Cultural District alcove of the UNT Health Science Center, far enough away that the buildings are smaller and older, and the unruly grass has yellowed. One morning this summer, Dr. Sid O’Bryant fit his hulking frame into his silver sedan and pointed it along a route that ended at a Medicaid-funded primary-care clinic there. 

O’Bryant is one of the school’s premier Alzheimer’s researchers, and a stubborn one. While at Texas Tech in 2006, he drafted a dream proposal to create the first-ever diagnostic blood test for the cognitive disease. It would be administered in primary-care offices. It just needed funding. But there isn’t a blood biomarker that tips off its presence the way a high blood-glucose level does for diabetes. So the National Institutes of Health wasn’t having it. 

“I was basically told, ‘This can’t work, so why would you even do this research?’ ” he says.  

But O’Bryant, barrel chested and broad shouldered, does not seem like a man who would allow that sort of rebuff to stop him. A former powerlifter (heaviest competition squat: 705 pounds), he veered into the less intense—but still demanding—world of bodybuilding after having spinal fusion surgery. When the NIH declined his request, he bolstered his proposal and eventually got it funded. The research began in 2012. Two years later, he’s again at the mercy of the NIH. Once they renew the grant, he can begin taking blood samples from Tarrant County residents to test. But when? 

“Funding lines are so bad, I just don’t know,” he says, trailing off. “I just don’t know.”

Which is why he’s in his sedan, heading to the clinic. The $8.6 million program known as MIGHTY Care—Mobile Interdisciplinary Geriatric Healthcare in the Community (yes, the acronym needs work)—will help more than 3,000 low-income Hispanic residents manage chronic diseases and treat minor medical problems at two clinics and a few other locations, like churches and thrift stores. On paper, its goals are basically the same as any post-Affordable Care Act health-care program: slice readmission rates, drop ER visits, engage the patient in his or her own care.

But there’s something else here, too: the Health & Aging Brain Among Latino Elders (HABLE) study. O’Bryant will ask the elderly, largely Hispanic population to allow the physician to take a blood sample. Pending funding, he will store them and look for differences in the way Alzheimer’s manifests itself in Hispanics compared to other demographics. He hopes to eventually study 3,000 total samples, with equal amounts coming from non-Hispanic whites, Hispanic or Mexican-Americans, and African-Americans. 

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates the disease will affect the brains of as many as 16 million Americans by 2050. As of this year, 5.2 million had it. Alzheimer’s steals a person’s mind and ends in death. There is no cure. 

And so while he waited for word on the grant renewal, O’Bryant studied the brain tissue and blood of genetically modified mice, attempting to match biomarkers present in both. He has found that the disease is “a mixed bag,” that it doesn’t affect everyone as neatly and uniformly as it’s currently treated. The biomarkers he has identified can pick out mice with Alzheimer’s at a success rate of 90 percent or higher, he says. If he gets his money, he is confident he’ll be able to back that up in humans and show the differences in its development in different racial and ethnic demographics, something that has never been done before. 

“A lot of people still have no faith in it, that it’ll be useful,” he says. “But it’s getting harder and harder for people to take that stance, because of the success.”