Photo of Dr. Alberto Costa in his lab at the Anschutz Medical Campus

It is an understatement to say Dr. Alberto Costa is passionate about Down syndrome. As a medical doctor and neurological researcher who found his calling when his daughter was born with Down syndrome 13 years ago, he has spent the years since dedicated to researching the disorder and its impact on the brain related to learning and memory. On March 26, the Down Syndrome Research Foundation (DSRF) honors Costa with the prestigious “Exceptional contribution to research in Down syndrome” award at the second annual Josephine Mills Research Awards Gala in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Costa is an associate professor of medicine and neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Medicine and throughout his career he has made a significant impact on the understanding of learning and memory deficits associated with Down syndrome. Diving headfirst into researching the condition after the birth of his daughter, he “has successfully combined his scientific research with his personal experiences and has been a leader in the field,” according to the DSRF.

“After my daughter was born, I did the same thing any parent would do—I began to learn as much as I could about the condition affecting my child,” Costa reflects. “When I had gone through medical school in the 1980’s, the survival rates and medical conditions associated with Down syndrome were very bleak. Initially, the diagnosis came as a shock but as I researched the scientific literature and began to learn more, I realized that much progress had been made in terms of medical care and inclusion opportunities for people with Down syndrome.”

After he revealed to others who were seeking information in online newsgroups that he was a physician, Costa was flooded with emails and questions from parents, up to 100 emails or more a day. “I began to realize that there was a vacuum of little to no information in the learning and memory retention field in patients with Down Syndrome,” he said. “Given my background as a researcher in receptors associated with neurotransmission—how different parts of the brain communicate—I realized there was a critical void of knowledge in this area of Down syndrome research that needed to be filled.”

Costa uprooted his family in Texas and moved them across the nation to the easternmost state of Maine to begin working with Muriel Davisson, PhD, a researcher at The Jackson Laboratory who developed a successful mouse model for Down syndrome and was one of the few in the world at that time working with Down syndrome mice. “It was a strategic advantage to move closer to the lab that produced and distributed these animals to the scientific community,” added Costa.

In 2001, medical research took a huge step when the genome was decoded and specific genes related to Chromosome 21, the extra chromosome at birth that leads to Down syndrome, were revealed. “Like most of my colleagues at the time, a lot of my research was descriptive, phenomenological in the beginning,” said Costa. “But following the sequencing of Chromosome 21, my research, as well as the research of a few others in the field, became much more targeted and now has a much greater potential of leading to genetic therapies and medicines to improve learning and memory acquisition and retention in persons with Down syndrome.”

In 2007, Costa and his colleagues published breakthrough research related to a drug that was used on mouse models with Down syndrome in which they found the mice to have better memory retention. It was the first instance in which acute injection of a drug improved the behavioral performance of mice in a test of learning and memory—and the findings could be promising from a therapeutical perspective. Currently, Costa is the principal investigator on a double-blind clinical trial that is underway to investigate the drug in patients ages 18 to 32 with Down syndrome.*

It is for his research and more that the DSRF recognizes Costa this week. The award, named in honor of the late Josephine (Jo) Mills, recognizes the lifelong efforts of the DSRF’s founding Executive Director. “I am quite excited about this award, because I knew and had extreme admiration for Jo and her work as the founding chair of the Canadian Down Syndrome Society, the Down Syndrome Research Foundation, and the Down Syndrome International organization,” added Costa.

Costa’s research is funded in part by the Linda Crnic Institute for Down Syndrome which was officially unveiled at the University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus last fall. The CU Denver institute has a single research focus of eradicating the ill effects associated with Down syndrome and is the first to comprehensively address basic research, clinical research and clinical care all under one umbrella. Additional funding for Costa’s research is also provided by The Coleman Institute for Cognitive Disabililities.

*For more information about the double-blind drug clinical trial mentioned above, please contact Costa directly at 303.724.6007 or email [email protected].

The University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine faculty work to advance science and improve care as the physicians, educators and scientists at University of Colorado Hospital, The Children’s Hospital, Denver Health, National Jewish Health, and the Denver Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Degrees offered by the CU Denver School of Medicine include doctor of medicine, doctor of physical therapy, and masters of physician assistant studies. The School is part of the University of Colorado Denver, one of three campuses in the University of Colorado system. For additional news and information, please visit the CU Denver newsroom online.

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