PEORIA — Alzheimer’s and dementia research has gotten a big funding boost in the last few years, and some of that money has come to Peoria.

Since 2015, Dr. Ken-ichiro Fukuchi’s research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria has been awarded more than $2.6 million in grant funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Fukuchi has been researching Alzheimer’s disease for most of his career. He’s been at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria since 2005, and currently runs a lab where he and two researchers are working to better understand what causes the debilitating disease. The growing emphasis on Alzheimer’s research has led Fukuchi to look for a third researcher to join his lab, an effort that is still pending.

“2015 was the first year funding revenue substantially increased,” said Fukuchi while sitting in his office at UICOMP last spring. The increase was a result of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, passed by Congress in 2010 and later signed into law by President Barack Obama.

“NAPA demanded the preparation of a national plan for Alzheimer’s disease,” said Fukuchi. “It had five goals — the first was to effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease by 2025.”

Once complete, the plan called for $2 billion a year to be allocated to research, a big increase from previous years — in 2012, only $500 million was allocated for Alzheimer’s research, said Fukuchi.

In 2015, Fukuchi was awarded $439,575 for a three-year study titled “Role of MicroRNAs as Modulators of Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s Disease.” That study is now complete and being prepared for publication, said Fukuchi, who also has five other studies in various stages of completion, including one that was just awarded NIH funding.

Until recently, the thinking among researchers was that buildup in the brain of proteins called amyloids were responsible for causing Alzheimer’s disease, and that by clearing away those proteins, the disease would be cured. Further research has knocked a hole in that hypothesis, and researchers are now looking at other things in their efforts to find a cure.

“My research is related to the immune response to the amyloid depositing in the brain,” said Fukuchi. “Too much amyloid causes an immune reaction that could be causing the problem. So by manipulating the immune response in a way to help the brain, then we may be able to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease.”

He is also studying how risk factors, like a high-fat diet, increase the chances of developing dementia. Most of the work in Fukuchi’s lab is done with the help of mice.

“We test them using a water maze,” said Fukuchi. “They have to find the hidden platform so they don’t have to keep swimming in the water. That shows how affected their brains are.”

Fukuchi graduated from Osaka University Medical School in Japan in 1985 and the next year made his way to the University of Washington in Seattle, where he began researching Alzheimer’s disease. A neuroscientist and molecular biologist with training as a geriatrician, Fukuchi has worked in the field of neuroscience and aging for more than 28 years.

Research into Alzheimer’s and dementia is seeing more federal funding because of fears for the future. The number of older Americans continues to grow in proportion to the number of children being born, a situation that will likely overwhelm Medicare in the future. Alzheimer’s and dementia is one of the most expensive ailments a person can get in terms of both medical care and social support.

“It’s extremely expensive,” said Fukuchi. “Right now, I think it’s costing more than $250 billion per year. By 2050, the cost is projected to be more than $1 trillion. We cannot afford that.”

Since the amyloid hypothesis failed, some scientists have become skeptical of NAPA’s goal to find a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia by 2025, but Fukuchi still has some hope. Rather than finding a cure, the route to better treatment may focus more on prevention, said Fukuchi.

“Lifestyle changes will become a more popular preventative, to keep the brain healthy.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.