Ozioma C. Okonkwo, Ph.D.

Ozioma Okonkwo


National Academy of Neuropsychology


Ozioma C. Okonkwo, Ph.D.

University of Wisconsin, Madison

"To Prevent Dementia, Get Moving"

Dr. Ozioma Okonkwo’s research program currently comprises two interconnected themes: (1) examining how alterations in central nervous system biomarkers place some cognitively-normal individuals on a pernicious trajectory that culminates in Alzheimer’s dementia, and (2) generating new knowledge concerning whether and how specific modifiable (e.g., physical exercise, cognitively-stimulating activities) and non-modifiable (e.g., genetic makeup) factors provide resilience to the deleterious effects of biomarker changes on cognitive function.

Dr. Okonkwo reported novel findings linking specific biomarker profiles to cognitive decline, disease progression, and conversion to Alzheimer’s dementia in persons with mild cognitive impairment. In later studies, he discovered that asymptomatic middle-aged adults with a parental history of Alzheimer’s disease exhibited very circumscribed atrophy of the posterior hippocampus over a 4-year interval, but that this hippocampal shrinkage was not accompanied by observable memory changes. This work challenged the prevailing hypothetical model of Alzheimer biomarkers by demonstrating that shrinkage of critical brain structures occurs much earlier in the course of the disease than postulated. In another landmark study, Dr. Okonkwo and colleagues showed that cognitively-normal middle-aged adults whose mothers have Alzheimer’s disease exhibit decreased cerebral blood flow in the same brain regions that were hypoperfused in patients with Alzheimer’s dementia. He has utilized avant-garde machine learning to decipher the pattern of brain atrophy that predicts future cognitive decline in presently asymptomatic individuals.

Dr. Okonkwo has contributed several novel findings to the field showing that certain lifestyle and genetic factors attenuate the impact on risk of aging, the cardinal risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, he reported that high levels of physical activity in midlife attenuates the deleterious effect of aging on core biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease including amyloid burden, glucose metabolism, and hippocampal volume. He has also shown that intellectual enrichment accruing from higher educational attainment abates the adverse effect of aging on cerebral amyloid and tau, thereby suggesting a pathway through which educational attainment favorably alters lifetime risk for Alzheimer’s dementia. More recently, he and colleagues have discovered that the gene KLOTHO mitigates the effect of aging and apolipoprotein E4 on biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease. Other work has shown that both higher cardiorespiratory fitness and frequent engagement in cognitively-stimulating activities are beneficial for brain health and cognitive function in middle-aged adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The ultimate goal of Dr. Okonkwo’s research agenda is translational—the identification of people at greatest risk for Alzheimer’s disease and the development of therapeutic strategies for decreasing their vulnerability.

Alzheimer’s dementia poses a global public health crisis, with monumental personal and societal costs. While concerted effort continues to be expended in the search for curative therapies, increasing attention is turned toward avenues for prevention. Dr. Okonkwo’s work is well-attuned to this two-pronged approach to forestalling Alzheimer’s looming epidemic: discovering sensitive methods for identifying cognitively-normal individuals who may be at heightened risk for the disease and providing critical information concerning lifestyle steps that people could take toward lowering their risk.

Dr. Okonkwo is very active in raising awareness of Alzheimer’s disease and pathways to building resilience to it. He makes presentations at regional, national, and international forums on Alzheimer’s disease. He has organized and/or chaired symposia at international conferences, and his work has been selected for press release at such conferences. He received invitations to offer expert opinion on notable publications in the field. He interacts regularly with the media, with work appearing in high-profile outlets such as the Washington Post, NPR, and NBC. He engages in speaking engagements at lay community events organized by groups such as the YMCA and local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association. He is also engaged in outreach to high school and college students.

Dr. Okonkwo is an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He completed a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and also a VA Advanced Fellowship at the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center after earning his doctorate in medical/clinical psychology from the University of Alabama at Birmingham.