Alzheimer’s research at McGill: Milestone anniversary prompts walk down memory lane
By Anne Chudobiak
“Thirty years ago, aging research was not sexy,” says Dr. Serge Gauthier.
He is speaking to Medicine Focus from a cozy office in the Victorian house, on the green lawns of the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Verdun, that is home to the McGill University Research Centre for Studies in Aging.
Joining him are colleagues, Dr. Jens Pruessner, Director of the Centre, and Professor, Psychiatry, and Dr. Pedro Rosa-Neto, a clinician scientist at the Douglas and Associate Professor of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, as well as Acting Director of the Centre. The topic: the 30th anniversary of the Centre, which was celebrated with a symposium on World Alzheimer’s Day.
“When I see our founding director Dr. Jacqueline McClaran [BTh], at the symposium, I am going to ask if she ever thought the Centre would be so successful,” says Gauthier.
McClaran was a family doctor working in the field of geriatrics before McGill even had a department of geriatric medicine. “That came eight years later,” says Pruessner.
“She was a visionary,” says Gauthier of McClaran, who launched the Centre with the support of then dean, Dr. Richard Cruess. The idea behind this Centre (and others founded in the Faculty at the same time) was to pool resources for researchers working on related topics, an approach that has worked particularly well in this case, Gauthier explains.
“The original mandate was quite broad,” says Gauthier, Director of the Centre’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit, founder of its Memory Clinic, and former director, after McClaran, of the Centre. “Now we specialize in brain aging and disease, with Alzheimer’s being the most common.”
“There are two ways to reach the cure for Alzheimer’s. Either through neuroscience or clinical care. Here, we do both,” says Rosa-Neto.
“On the ground floor, we provide care. On the second floor, we plan our studies. Upstairs are the students, who produce high-quality research,” says Pruessner.
In its thirty years of existence, the Centre’s accomplishments have piled up.
In the first decade, Dr. Judes Poirier, who would assume directorship of the Centre after Gauthier’s 11-year term, made the groundbreaking discovery that Apolipoprotein E, a cholesterol transporter, acts as a modulator of brain reinnervation. The Centre also pioneered clinical trials in dementia in Canada.
From day one, the Centre has been active in public outreach. “Some members of our Education Committee have been here since the Centre opened,” says Gauthier. Readers living in the Montreal area may be familiar with the popular, long-running “Brainy Boomers” lecture series.
The Centre also created the network of clinical trial sites in Canada, C5R.
“We hope to be involved in the Canadian national plan against dementia. You’ll hear more about that soon,” says Gauthier.
One of the Centre’s biggest discoveries is one of its most recent. This spring, a team led by Rosa-Neto published evidence, in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, that the interaction between amyloid and tau proteins drives brain damage in cognitively intact individuals. “When these two are sharing the same place in the brain, they have a synergistic effect, leading to brain degeneration,” says Rosa-Neto.
“Dr. Rosa-Neto is our translational research person,” says Pruessner. “He makes the link between the animal model with the human model.”
Groundbreaking research such as this is carried out in collaboration with researchers from elsewhere in the Faculty, says Gauthier, who mentions Claudio Cuello, Professor and former chair, Pharmacology. “We use some of his rats,” he says. “We look at human brains in the brain bank, at animal models, and at healthy aging—that’s Dr. Pruessner’s specialty.” For a university Centre to have this range of approaches is quite special, he explains.
“We also bridge to other countries. We have people now coming here from Asia, South America and Europe,” says Gauthier, who adds that the Centre cannot accommodate all the requests from prospective students, residents and fellows. The Centre also collaborates with Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN), an international research partnership dedicated to the study of a rare form of Alzheimer’s that is caused by a gene mutation and occurs at an early age.
“We have a clinic for patients with early onset dementia. We provide specific diagnostics and care for these individuals and we can engage them in clinical trials,” says Rosa-Neto.
“We have come a long way, but we need to improve a lot more that so that we can diagnose patients before the onset of clinical symptoms,” says Pruessner.
The goal now, says Rosa-Neto, is to strengthen the link between neuroscience and clinical care, “Essentially, to find the cure.”
“We know that the changes in the brain start to occur up to two decades before the clinical onset of the disease,” says Pruessner. “With decades to intervene, you can prevent a lot of the damage.”
“Before 2011, Alzheimer’s was considered only dementia. Now it is considered a process with three phases. One, the patient has the proteins accumulating in the brain, but doesn’t have any symptoms. Two, the person has mild cognitive symptoms, but remains completely independent. Three, the person has dementia and loss of independence. The idea now is to intervene in this process. Some can frame this as treatment, others as prevention: the idea is to stop a pathological process as it builds up very slowly in the brain.”
The Centre recently received a $1.5-million grant from the Weston Brain Institute to study preclinical Alzheimer’s disease using neuroimaging techniques in collaboration with the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital—The Neuro. They also recently received a “big data” grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
“When you think of where we come from, thirty years ago, you can say a lot has happened,” says Pruessner.
“Yes,” concludes Gauthier, “the field of aging is alive and well at McGill. And since we are in aging, we can only grow.”