Improving Health & Medicine

World Alzheimer’s Month: How is Weizmann Helping?

September 2017 • E-News • TAGS: Alzheimers, Brain, Neuroscience

E-newsletter, September 2017

September is World Alzheimer’s Month – a fact that highlights the disease’s unfortunate status as a major, ongoing, global health crisis. There are many intersecting reasons that Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise; ironically, most of them are also advances, such as better healthcare, prevention, nutrition, safety, and the like, all of which lead to increased longevity. And while Alzheimer’s is a disease of the aging brain, there is also a significant genetic component to this devastating illness. As of now, despite many years and many billions of dollars, there is no truly effective treatment, much less a cure.

Before treatments can be developed, however, scientists require a much more detailed understanding of the disease. That’s where the Weizmann Institute of Science’s creative interdisciplinary research comes in.

Following are just a few of examples of our ongoing, innovative investigations into the complexities of Alzheimer’s.

  • Stem cells and neuron regeneration for the aging brain. The neurons in our brains are, for the most part, the same age as we are – and, thus, are susceptible to the accumulating ravages of time. This is doubly troubling because most neurons in the adult central nervous system reach a point where they can no longer divide; furthermore, they are not replaced when they die.

    These two factors account for the fatal nature of Alzheimer’s, as well as many other neurological disorders. Intrigued by the potential use of stem cells to cure neurodegenerative diseases, immunologist Prof. Avi Ben-Nun studies the mechanisms that induce spontaneous neurogeneration – or production of neurons – and subsequent differentiation and migration to other brain regions. He is also investigating the regenerative medicine option of supplying additional, external adult neural stem and progenitor cells to damaged brain regions.

  • Studying our aging infrastructure. Prof. Michael Fainzilber focuses on the molecular mechanisms of transport and communication along axons: long extensions of nerve cells. These mechanisms are critical for nerve cell development, survival, injury repair, and normal aging. Impaired axonal transport has been implicated in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases of the elderly. Furthermore, the ability of aged nerve cells to repair the transport system are much reduced in comparison to their younger counterparts. Prof. Fainzilber aims to understand how axonal transport mechanisms change with age, and is exploring whether these changes can be directed toward reducing the consequences of aging in nerve cells.

  • Stem cells as power tools. World renowned for his stem cell research, Dr. Jacob Hanna is advancing the use of stem cells in medicine by answering basic questions about how stem cells differentiate and develop. He states that stem cell research can supply new, sorely needed tools for research into gene-based diseases, including Alzheimer’s. These diseases involve degeneration of the cells, which makes them hard to study; however, Dr. Hanna plans to create stem cells from the adult cells of patients, which will enable him to apply genetic engineering methods such as inserting or removing genes or adding markers to create useful models for researching diseases such as Alzheimer’s – and, hopefully, opening up new pathways to treatments.

  • Turning “NO” into a “yes” treatment. Molecular cell biologist Dr. Oren Schuldiner explores “pruning” – a process through which certain neurons grow extensions abundantly, but then cause some of these extensions to degenerate. Studying the fruit fly – an astonishingly versatile research subject – he discovered that their neurons regrew much faster when there were lower levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the environment.

    By genetically manipulating the fruit flies, Dr. Schuldiner confirmed that NO acts as a “switch” for neuronal growth in living flies. His discovery could lead to multiple applications – for example, NO-based therapy could be developed to promote neural regeneration in Alzheimer’s patients.

  • Bats lead the way in understanding Alzheimer’s. Prof. Nachum Ulanovsky, a neurobiologist, has an unusual research partner: the fruit bat. With brains similar to ours but with exceptional navigation and spatial memory, the bats are shedding light on a number of neurological conditions – including Alzheimer’s.

    Two ancient areas of the brain – the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex – are the first in which neurons die during the onset of Alzheimer’s. Prof. Ulanovsky and his research team study the physiology of the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex under a range of activities and conditions. They hope to understand the normal function and dysfunction of these regions when the brain is affected by Alzheimer’s.

While the rapid rise and cruel impacts of Alzheimer’s are devastating, there is much to be hopeful about, as just these few examples show. Weizmann Institute scientists care deeply about unravelling the causes and mechanisms of Alzheimer’s, which will then allow for better prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Won’t you join them in their search?