FIU Research and Stempel College bring together national experts to discuss brain health
The Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work, in partnership with the FIU Office of Research and Economic Development (ORED), recently hosted a symposium to discuss research regarding brain health and the promotion of interventions that could help alleviate the crisis related to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 50 million individuals are currently living with dementia. Studies have shown that while an estimated 10 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are genetic, 90 percent of cases are sporadic with unknown direct causes. Research is finding that the causes range from lifestyle habits to environmental toxins.
“When I started in public health, the environmental aspects of brain health were completely ignored – it was all genetics. It has only been in the last 20 years that we have been discussing gene-environment interactions,” Stempel College Dean Tomás R. Guilarte. “Today, we recognize the risk factors that come from our environment, as well as genetics and other social factors. We need a multifactorial approach to research to improve brain health.”
Among the guests at the symposium were Carl V. Hill, director of the Office of Special Populations at the National Institute on Aging; Susan Resnick, chief of the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging; and Francisco Lopera, director of the Neuroscience Group at Colombia’s Universidad de Antioquia.
While age is obviously a factor, researchers discussed the need to also look at social factors and epidemiological factors that affect health as well as the environmental risks that impact brain health. The symposium also focused on the need to conduct research that focuses on subpopulations at the highest risk of health disparities, which are often the groups with the highest diagnoses of neurodegenerative diseases and typically underrepresented in clinical studies.
Jason Resendez, executive director of LatinosAgainstAlzheimer’s, spoke about the need to improve equity in brain health research and prevention in an effort to help all those affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
Columbia University’s Yaakov Stern discussed how life experiences, including education and occupation, and leisure activities are associated with a slower rate of memory decline and a reduced risk of developing dementia.
Meanwhile, Peggye Dilworth-Anderson from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill emphasized the importance of looking at social determinants of health based on a life-course approach, which includes generational medical history as well as an individual’s entire family to understand health and risk factors.
Stempel’s Associate Dean of Research Jason R. Richardson discussed pathways to Alzheimer’s disease in the environment, specifically the effects of APOE on the brain and its interaction with pesticides.
“Environmental factors play a role in neurological disease and brain dysfunction but we need to focus on the interplay between genetic susceptibly and the environmental contributors that are will likely lead to identification,” said Richardson.
Continuing with the theme of the environment, Guilarte discussed environmental and man-made contaminants that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. His presentation looked at age related imbalances of biometals in the brain due to human exposure to environmental “toxic” metals that alter metal concentration in the brain, particularly manganese.
The afternoon sessions focused on examining the effects of social and economic factors that affect brain health as well as understanding how chronic diseases impact brain health.
Attendees walked away with a shared understanding that more longitudinal studies can help researchers understand how everything from daily routines to environmental exposures can greatly affect brain health and how the brain responds.
Overall, the symposium was an opportunity for renowned researchers from throughout the country to gather and share their respective research, while discussing the implications of Alzheimer’s disease on society.
“We have plans to develop health focused research opportunities at FIU, particularly around brain health and Alzheimer’s disease. We are in the initial stages of developing these plans for research and the development of interventions for Alzheimer’s as it is a problem that is impacting not only the world but, given the demographics in the state of Florida, a major issue here,” said Andrés Gil, vice president of ORED. “Particularly, the School of Public Health at Stempel College will be building faculty in this area and helping FIU set the course to find new interventions and solutions. That is why we brought together an outstanding working group of experts for this symposium, which we hope will lead to more specific plans for FIU’s future in this area.”