June marks Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month

  Wednesday, June 12, 2024
  Health, Community

By Heriberto Perez–Zuñiga

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – JUNE 12, 2024 – Faced with the socioeconomic limitations in his native Venezuela, UTRGV School of Medicine's Dr. Jesús Melgarejo's dream of becoming a doctor initially seemed impossible. 

However, the unwavering support from his family and mentor provided him with educational opportunities and nurtured his aspirations of becoming a doctor.

This Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month, Melgarejo joins the forefront of the fight against Alzheimer's disease and is working to help Valley communities understand and prevent this neurological disease. 


"I come from a humble family background. My brother and I were educated with a high sense of honesty, hard work, discipline and respect for others," said Melgarejo, an assistant professor of Neuroscience at the UTRGV School of Medicine.

Melgarejo said that despite facing challenges such as limited internet access and scarce electricity—often only 4-6 hours per day—his parents' unwavering support allowed him to persevere through these obstacles and break barriers, ultimately achieving his dream of becoming a doctor.

The support and mentorship of advocates like Dr. Gladys Maestre – UTRGV professor of Neuroscience and Human Genetics and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research at the UTRGV School of Medicine – has been fundamental in his career, Melgarejo said.

Maestre, also a Venezuelan native, understands Melgarejo's hardships in getting to where he is now.

"The work Dr. Melgarejo is doing to advance our understanding of Alzheimer's disease is truly a benefit to our community," she said.

"It's remarkable to see one of our own contributing to such significant research. His success is a great example of what we can accomplish with hard work and dedication. I am sure we will continue to see positive impacts through the work he will continue to make in the fight against Alzheimer's."


Melgarejo has dedicated his career to studying neurobiological diseases. His research focuses on the link between hypertension and Alzheimer's disease, conditions that, due to a variety of factors, including genetic predispositions, lifestyle choices, and socioeconomic conditions, affect a large portion of the Rio Grande Valley population. 

Today, according to the Alzheimer's Association, nearly 7 million people currently have Alzheimer's disease in the United States. As the population ages, that number is projected to double to almost 13 million by 2050. 

"This trend is particularly troubling for communities like the Valley," Melgarejo said, "where a combination of socioeconomic factors, limited access to healthcare, and a higher prevalence of conditions like diabetes and hypertension create a perfect storm for even greater impact."

He believes research currently underway at the UTRGV School of Medicine will play a pivotal role in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.

"We aim to see if social factors explain the link between blood pressure issues and brain changes in Alzheimer's disease," he said. "This could show how social conditions play a role in these health problems. We can contribute evidence showing us what actions we need to take to lessen the impact of preventable conditions."

Melgarejo's research includes understanding how irregular 24-hour blood pressure affects Alzheimer's-related disorders, including brain changes seen in MRI scans and cognitive function.

"Hypertension is one of the most important preventable risk factors associated with numerous diseases, including stroke and ischemic [inadequate blood supply to an area due to blockage of the blood vessels] heart diseases," said Melgarejo.

"Minority and underserved populations are more likely to be affected by hypertension, leading to higher rates of complications and poorer health outcomes in these communities. Studying these is crucial for communities like the Rio Grande Valley and brings us one step closer to finding effective solutions and improving overall health outcomes." 

Dr. Michael Hocker, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine and senior vice president of UT Health RGV, emphasized the critical need for research into Alzheimer’s disease for patients in the Rio Grande Valley, where rates remain some of the highest in the country.

“It is alarming that our region has some of the highest rates of Alzheimer’s disease, nearly double the national average, particularly affecting our Hispanic population who are 1.5 times more likely to develop the disease than non-Hispanic whites,” said Hocker. “Many in our community live in multigenerational homes, taking care of their elder family members, and have been personally affected by the disease, making this research all the more important.” 

Melgarejo said the research being done at the UTRGV School of Medicine can potentially improve patients' lives worldwide. This fact that fills him with pride, but it seemed so out of reach when he began his medical career.

"I love what I do, and my enthusiasm keeps me on track,” Melgarejo said. "Time, patience, motivation and courage are all part of the formula to do science."


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.