NIA Symposium Focuses on Alzheimer's Disease
By Stephanie Clipper
On the Front Page...
"Neuroscience: The Splice, the Mice, the Neuron, and the Nun" was the title of the National Institute on Aging's Florence Mahoney 100th Birthday Lecture Series, which took place recently in Masur Auditorium. The lecture brought together four cutting-edge investigators in the field of aging research to honor Mrs. Florence Stephenson Mahoney, a founding member of the National Advisory Council on Aging, who was instrumental in establishing NIA and several other institutes at NIH. (The event is available for viewing on the NIH videocast Web site at http://videocast.nih.gov and can be found in the "Special Lectures" section under "Past Events.")
Beginning the lectures, Dr. Michael Hutton, assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., addressed the "splice" by focusing on how some neurodegenerative diseases are caused. His research centers around mutations in a gene called tau. In some families, unique splice mutations in the tau gene are linked to a rare, inherited form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia or FTDP-17. A feature of these tau-related diseases is the accumulation of abnormal proteins related to the neurofibrillary tangles found in Alzheimer's disease.
Next, addressing the "mice," Dr. Karen Hsiao Ashe, professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota, spoke about an animal model she developed that now serves as a tool for the study of many aspects of Alzheimer's disease. This mouse model produces a mutant version of a protein found in the brains of human Alzheimer's disease patients. The animals develop plaques characteristic of AD and have difficulty on tests of learning and memory.
Addressing the "neuron," Dr. Rudolph E. Tanzi, director of the genetics and aging unit in the department of neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital, presented his latest work in the controversial field of Alzheimer's disease genetics. Tanzi, who is also an associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, was part of two separate teams that in 1997 identified the presenilin mutations linked to early-onset Alzheimer's disease. More recently, he and his colleagues identified a gene called A2M-2, different forms of which may serve as a risk factor for late-onset AD.
In his lecture on the "nun," Dr. David A. Snowdon, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Kentucky's College of Medicine, spoke about his 9-year project called the Nun Study, a collaboration with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, a religious order. Snowdon, an epidemiologist who is also associated with the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging in Lexington, Ky., presented evidence that there may be risk factors for AD that stretch back to adolescence, risk factors associated with language ability and the development of thinking areas of the brain. His latest research focuses on a possible link between Alzheimer's disease and low levels of the common B vitamin known as folic acid or folate.
"The four presentations highlighted different facets of research into the causes of late life dementias," said Dr. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad, associate director of NIA for the Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program. "These researchers have made seminal contributions to research on Alz-heimer's disease and frontotemporal dementias. Their research is breaking new ground in the general fields of messenger RNA processing and the relationship between protein structure and function; animal models of disease; risk factor genes for multifunctional disease; and life course predictors of late life disease."
The symposium celebrated the contributions and 100th birthday of Mahoney, who was not able to attend the meeting.
"Mrs. Mahoney was a critical proponent of medical research and health policy research over the past 50 years and, in many ways, working with her colleagues such as Mary Lasker, was responsible for a lot of the advances in and public appreciation of medical research," said NIA director Dr. Richard J. Hodes in introductory remarks. "She served on the advisory councils of a number of institutes at NIH and was particularly instrumental in the founding of the NIA. She's been a great champion and believer in the cause of medical research in the service of public well-being and has, through her contacts with the press and with policymakers, had a very substantial impact on those of us at the NIH."
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