Patients and families gathered with faculty, students and trainees on May 11 for Alzheimer Day, an annual event hosted by the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease to showcase dementia and aging research conducted throughout Northwestern and bring those discoveries to the community.
Robert Vassar, PhD, the Davee Professor of Alzheimer Research and professor of Neurology and of Cell and Developmental Biology, director of the Mesulam Center and scientific director of Behavioral Neurology in the Department of Neurology, welcomed participants to the event and provided an update on center activities.
“The current year has witnessed exceptional growth and progress,” Vassar said, noting several new grants awarded to Center investigators to continue research into primary progressive aphasia and “SuperAgers,” adults over 80 who exhibit superior memory and brain function.
Additionally, the center recently launched the brain scholarship program, a partnership with schools on Chicago’s South and West Sides designed to encourage and train aspiring young scientists from underrepresented groups.
John Disterhoft, PhD, professor emeritus of Neuroscience, announced the winner of the Marie and Carl Duncan Prize in Memory Disorders. Inaugurated in 2006, the award is presented to recognize accomplishments in clinically relevant arenas of inquiry.
Ivan Ayala, scientist in the lab of Changiz Geula, PhD, research professor of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease and of Cell and Molecular Biology, won this year’s Duncan prize for his research into SuperAgers.
Grace Minogue and Antonia Zouridakis, investigators in the laboratory of Tamar Gefen, ’15 PhD, assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the Division of Psychology, were honored for their outstanding research posters, as well as Erfan Taefi, also a scientist in the Guela laboratory.
The keynote Mendelson Lecture was delivered by William Jagust, MD, professor of Neuroscience and of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley.
Jagust shared an overview of current research into the link between the protein tau, amyloid beta peptides in the brain, and the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.
“With this background, we now think about Alzheimer’s in terms of biomarkers, not clinical symptoms,” Jagust said. “If we see high levels of amyloid and tau, we think that’s good enough to call it Alzheimer’s disease, even if a person doesn’t have symptoms. Because if we did a neuropathology exam on a person in a situation, we would find those plaques and tangles in the brain that make Alzheimer’s disease. This opens the door to treat people with Alzheimer’s by targeting amyloid and tau.”
Following the lecture, community members had the chance to pose questions to a panel of local and Northwestern experts on community-academic partnerships in brain health research.
“At our core, we believe research is a powerful way to understand the world,” said Jen Brown, MPH, co-founder and co-director of the Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities (ARCC) at Feinberg. “It shapes the narratives, it’s the stories of who we are and how we live… Community research partnerships can help ensure that research is a tool for patients and caregivers, for communities to tell their own stories. It really can be a way of shifting decision-making power to those who are most impacted by inequities and address some of the issues raised here today.”
A research poster session closed out the event, showcasing topics ranging from racial inequities in Alzheimer’s care to the latest scientific advances in understanding the brain.
Mia Andreoli, a rising fourth-year medical student at Feinberg, presented her work on the connection between white matter injury and brain dysfunction in glioma patients.
“We wanted to see if we could predict different types of cognitive deficits based on white matter tract injury,” Andreoli said. “We did find multiple neuropsychological tests associated with certain tracts, all with mild cognitive deficits, which is common for glioma patients since there’s still a degree of neuroplasticity.”
The findings add to our knowledge of how the human brain is organized, Andreoli said.
“Overall, the importance of this study is that if we have a better understanding of which white matter tracts control the different parts of cognition, it might help with safe surgical planning,” she said. “Surgeons can take out more of a tumor without causing any cognitive deficits or potentially could counsel patients on what deficits they might have based on their pattern of injury.”