What if Alzheimer’s disease could be discovered a decade before the first cognitive impairment was ever noticed? That’s the question Reisa Sperling, MD, Center for Alzheimer’s Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, posed to a crowd of more than 300 students, staff, faculty and community members inside the Feinberg Pavilion at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Sperling, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School specializing in dementia and imaging research, delivered the keynote speech as part of Alzheimer’s Day on Thursday, May 10. The 18th annual event, hosted by the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC), featured the Medelson Keynote Lecture, memory screenings, a poster contest, panel discussion, and presentation by Mary Mittelman, PhD, director of psychosocial research and support programs of the New York University Center of Excellence on Brain Aging.
The principal investigator of multiple National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, Sperling recently led the National Institute on Aging-Alzheimer’s Association working group to develop guidelines for the study of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. She will also serve as the project leader for the highly anticipated Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s Disease trial (A4), a secondary prevention trial in clinically normal older individuals with evidence of early Alzheimer’s disease pathology. It is hopeful that the A4 trial might result in a discovery of treatment options that would delay cognitive decline.
“Miracles of modern medicine are making us live longer and the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a disease that is currently neither preventable nor treatable,” said Marsel Mesulam, MD, CNADC director and Ruth and Evelyn Dunbar Professor of Neurology. “Although the challenges are formidable, Dr. Sperling has illustrated that there is now serious hope for considering the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, assuming we can detect it very early in its course, even before the onset of clinical symptoms.”
Annual Alzheimer’s Day events provide the opportunity for students and researchers to learn more about the important aging and dementia research taking place at Northwestern.
This year’s Marie and Carl Duncan Prize in Memory Research was awarded to Tharinda Rajapaksha, research lab manager in cell and molecular biology, for his presentation of work conducted with Thomas Bozza, PhD, assistant professor in neurobiology, and Robert Vassar, PhD, professor in cell and molecular biology.
The research provides insight into a specific enzyme, BACE1, shown to be elevated in people with Alzheimer’s disease. By exploring the role of BACE1 in the olfactory system, the group concluded that BACE1 inhibitors, already under development for the treatment of the disease, may potentially cause axon targeting defects in olfactory sensory neurons as well.
With the work of groups’s like Vassar’s, and people like Emily Rogalski, PhD, CNADC research assistant professor, Mesulam is confident that Northwestern will continue to make important discoveries in cognitive health.
The project led by Rogalski recruited a small group of individuals older than 80 whose memory is not only normal for their age but at least as good as healthy 50 year olds. These “super agers” show none of the age-related brain shrinkage seen in normal populations, leading to the conclusion that memory loss and brain shrinkage are not absolute.
“Many people wonder whether age and Alzheimer’s disease are one and the same,” Mesulam said. “As we move toward greater understanding of the factors that promote successful aging, research taking place right here at Northwestern is proving that they are not.”
National Alzheimer’s Summit
Northwestern’s Alzheimer’s Day came just days before a nationwide summit attended by an estimated 600 researchers, the first spinoff of plans established by the National Alzheimer’s Project Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama last year and expected to be finalized on Tuesday, May 15. The top goal of the act is to find a cure by 2025. Similar plans for heart disease and HIV/AIDS have been game-changers.
More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to triple by 2050 as Baby Boomers grow older.