Thanks to advances in healthcare, sanitation, safety, and nutrition, people today are living longer than ever; in fact, in the West, the fastest-growing demographic is age 85 and up.

Fortunately, Weizmann Institute of Science researchers from across the disciplines have long made it a priority to investigate neurodegenerative and neurological disorders, including those that tend to strike older people; just some of these areas of research include Parkinson’s, glaucoma and advanced macular degeneration (AMD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease), nerve degeneration as a result of trauma or stroke – and, especially, Alzheimer’s disease.

 Following are just a few current examples of the Weizmann Institute’s hope-giving research.

  • Stress and neurodegeneration. Prof. Alon Chen focuses on the role of stress in aging and age-related disease. He has already shown that as hormone levels change with age, they contribute to the increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and is now exploring the mechanisms behind this hormonal regulation system. Prof. Chen also researches how stress leads to depression and anxiety, which are commonly linked to age-related neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

  • Reversing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and neurodegeneration. Prof. Michal Schwartz, who discovered the link between the immune system and the brain, aims to slow, stop – even reverse – the progress of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Her many breakthroughs include an immune-based therapy that, when given to mice with Alzheimer’s, eliminated the brain plaques associated with the disease. And together with Prof. Ido Amit, she recently developed an antibody that helps restore cognitive abilities and brain cells in mice, thus actually reversing some of the effects of aging.

    The two scientists are now developing this research into a vaccine to slow the brain’s aging process.

  • Vaccines for glaucoma and AMD. Prof. Schwartz was also the first to propose that glaucoma could benefit from a neuroprotection approach, and developed a vaccine that, in mice, decreased the loss of retinal ganglion cells in response to the elevated intra-ocular pressure seen in glaucoma.

    Prof. Schwartz’s research into glaucoma treatments also had significant implications for the dry form of AMD, which affects 80% of all AMD patients. Her findings suggest that a neuroprotection  could also be effective for AMD by limiting the inflammatory response associated with drusen, a protein that appears early in the condition.

  • Sniffing out Alzheimer’s. Prof. Noam Sobel investigates the many complexities of the human olfactory system, the faulty function of which can be an early sign of neurological and cognitive deteriorations; for example, a well-known symptom of Alzheimer’s is mistaking the smell of chocolate for that of oranges. Based on this knowledge, he has designed olfactometers (devices that generate odors) that are capable of providing early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Neurological disorders will likely impact all of us at some point in our lives, whether in a loved one or ourselves. But there is much to be positive about, thanks to new technologies and discoveries about genetics and biology – and thanks to philanthropic support – all of which help Weizmann Institute scientists improve means of early diagnosis and treatment.