September is known internationally as Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, with September 21 being considered World Alzheimer’s Day. This campaign was launched in 2012 to raise awareness about dementia and to challenge the stigma that surrounds it.
While the stigmatization and misinformation that surrounds dementia remain a global problem, inroads are being made, particularly through groundbreaking research being done by renowned scientists. One such individual with a direct New England connection is Dr. Rudolph Tanzi. He serves as the Vice-Chair of Neurology and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, as well as the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.
When Tanzi was a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1980s, he was part of the team that discovered the first disease gene using human genetic markers. Emboldened by the discovery, he predicted that he could find a gene that caused Alzheimer’s disease. Though at the time his superiors dismissed his hypothesis as being too speculative, he did indeed eventually find the Alzheimer’s gene.
Today, Tanzi is the chair of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Leadership Group (www.curealz.org). Based in Wellesley Hills, MA, this nonprofit is an organization dedicated to funding research that aims to prevent, slow, or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Their Board of Directors finances all their overhead expenses so that 100% of all donations go toward research. To date, $110,258,046 has been funded, including 474 grants.
In 2020, Tanzi and his team at Amylyx (a pharmaceutical company he helped found with funding from the nonprofit) discovered compounds that actually prevent neuroinflammation, the culprit that kills most of the neurons in symptomatic patients of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and Parkinson’s. The results, published this spring, could lead to incredible breakthroughs in treating Alzheimer’s patients.
Neuroinflammation is an inflammatory response of the brain to plaques, tangles, and the cell death they cause. Plaques and tangles come first, initiating original nerve cell death, but the brain’s inflammatory response causes an exponentially higher degree of cell death compared to the original triggering cell death. The best way to help patients suffering from neurogenerative diseases is to stop their neuroinflammation. This can be accomplished both by preventing the root cause of the neuroinflammation itself, as well as by protecting the neurons from dying due to the neuroinflammation.
In 2008, the Alzheimer’s Genome Project (directed by Tanzi since 2004) located the first gene that controls neuroinflammation in the brain. This Alzheimer’s gene, called CD33, was found to turn on neuroinflammation, which in turns kills brain cells. That discovery led to targeted research to develop drugs that would stop the neuroinflammation. Fast forward to 2020, when Amylyx was able to show that two compounds used together were able to protect the nerve cells against neuroinflammation, thus slowing down the disease. When the drug was successfully used in an ALS clinical trial at Mass General, leading scientists predicted that it would work in other similar diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. This is the first therapy directly related to protecting nerve cells from dying due to neuroinflammation. The goal is to get FDA approval over the next year for using the drug to treat ALS, while it is being trialed for Alzheimer’s.
In other good news, Tanzi stresses that those not currently afflicted with a neurogenerative disease can take steps to strengthen their brains now by following the acronym SHIELD: Sleep 7-8 hours a night to allow your body to clear debris out of your brain that causes problems; handle stress appropriately; interact with others socially to stay engaged and avoid loneliness; exercise regularly to induce the birth of new nerve cells in the brain and improve cognition; learn new things to make new connections between nerve cells (synapses), which builds up your synaptic reserve and neuro network; and eat a healthy diet (such as the Mediterranean diet) to keep the bacteria in your gut healthy, which in turn will help keep your brain healthy and reduce inflammation.
A healthy brain has regular and efficient communication between different parts of the brain. The brain stem in the back of the head has to do with instinct, such as fight or flight, finding food, and reproducing. The limbic system (where Alzheimer’s hits) is involved with emotions, such as desire and fear. The frontal cortex is the center of reasoning, logic, creativity, and self-awareness. Each of these parts needs to work together, rather than one typically dominating. Being aware of what your brain is doing creates the connectivity that allows your brain to function at its best.
It’s exciting to be living in a time and in an area where important breakthroughs are being made that can assist us in preventing, slowing, and even reversing ravaging diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia!