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Much needed focus on the brain and its diseases at SALSS

Meryl Comer

The central theme of SALSS and the first day of the conference was about our most complex organ and some of the diseases and conditions that can affect it.

The human brain is central to our existence, yet we are still learning about how it actually works. As the world’s population is aging we are faced with the challenge of various neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Parkinson’s disease and ALS; devastating diseases that not only imply a high impact on healthcare, but a drastic impact on the life quality of those affected. Thus, the program contained a variety of speakers, presenting both recent progress within the field as well as obstacles that need to be addressed. 

Flicker of light gives new hope to AZ patients

Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple worldwide by 2050. Neuroscientist Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, Director of the Picower Institute of Learning and Memory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, gave an account of a new approach that could help combat the disease. Together with her colleagues at MIT, they have found that LED light therapy, rather than drugs or invasive procedures like surgery, could be a successful treatment. In their studies, they found that repeated exposure to pulsating light could reduce the amyloid plaques and tau tangles thought to lead to cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s.

The genetics of ALS

The morning also included a panel session on new breakthroughs within ALS research. Dr Neil Shneider from Columbia University told the audience about the great need to develop new therapeutics but also to gain more understanding of the biology of ALS. As Dr Shneider pointed out, scientists are still learning more about the causes behind the disease. Researchers are studying several possible causes, including gene mutation. Over 30 genes have been discovered associated with familial ALS. The most common genetic mutation found in ALS patients, as Dr Shneider pointed out, is the C9orf72 gene. The mutation, which seems to have originated in Northern Europe, “is responsible for about 50 percent of all familial cases of ALS,” noted Dr Shneider, who also emphasized the need for more knowledge. “Better understanding of the genetics of the disease creates the potential for intervention.”

Dr Per Svenningsson from Karolinska Institutet, specializing in the study of the underlying pathogenic process of Parkinson’s Disease gave a review of the most urgent areas to focus on, such as better treatments to slow down the progression of the disease. Dr Svenningsson also pointed out how increased knowledge about Parkinson’s could result in improved therapies. “It is not only a movement disorder. It affects cognitive performance, sensory systems and sleep, which often is what many patients find most troublesome.”

Breakthrough technology treats stroke

Another speaker at the conference was Dr Staffan Holmin, Professor of Clinical Neuroimaging at Karolinska Institutet. Dr Holmin and his clinical team were among the first in the world to apply stentriever microcatheter technology in the treatment of acute ischemic stroke. The method allows for a quick and direct removal of the thrombosis with a swift recovery for the patient.

The complexity of depression

“WHO told us twenty years ago that depression will be the main cause of disability in the world by 2020. We are soon there,” stated Dr Lars Häggström, CEO of Affecta. He has been treating patients suffering from depression for the past 30 years as a psychiatrist, gaining a deep insight into how widespread the illness has become and how complex the disease is. Häggström has mainly worked with patients who have failed to recover in first and second line treatments in primary care. Why do as many as 70 percent of patients not respond to first treatment? Häggström has investigated this issue more closely. The answer involves several factors.

“One reason is that depression is not one illness. It is several different diseases with different symptoms. But the focus at the primary care level is often that patients should have the same treatment,” he noted, highlighting the importance of treating different types of depressions in different ways.

The global burden of Alzheimer’s

Striking a deeply emotional note, without doubt for the entire audience, with her compelling personal story, Meryl Comer fiercely and effectively brought Alzheimer’s disease high up on the agenda. For the past 22 years she has been by the bedside of her husband, gaining insight into this immensely cruel neurodegenerative disease. Seeing how it changed her husband into a stranger and also affected her own life, leaving her career at the age of 49 to take care of her husband, Alzheimer’s is not only having an impact on millions of patients all over the world. It is also a heavy burden on the family members of these patients.

A lot of political activity is going on but far from enough is being accomplished, Comer points out, highlighting seven impediments to ending Alzheimer’s disease. Slow and inefficient testing of medicines, governments being reluctant to pay for new treatments, as well as inadequate investment in research. “It is unacceptable that we don’t have better care options,” Comer noted.

Today, people are tending more and more to cite Alzheimer’s as the most frightening health condition, Comer said. This disease will be “the second inconvenient truth of the 21st century,” she claimed, and made us all wonder if future generations will be able to look forward to a dignified old age filled with life quality?

Limited by our ancient brains

Personal experience and passion were also portrayed by Dr Mouna Esmaeilizadeh. Starting off her presentation with the dramatic story of how she cheated death at the age of three (she barely survived a dramatic journey through the cold mountains leaving Iran), Esmaeilizadeh emphasized how “applied science gave me a second chance to live”. With the possibility of miracles as a starting point, she gave an inspirational speech on how miracles based on science will be a part of the future. “The seemingly impossible will be possible.”

However, as Esmaeilizadeh pointed out, the human brain tends to have difficulties understanding exponential worth, making it difficult to grasp the progress that actually lies ahead.

“We don’t see the world as it could be. We see it based on previous experience, filtered through our subjective lenses. Our brain has identified and classified information based on context, making our thoughts coherent with our own world view.”

Therefore, “We have to work on that so that we don’t miss the opportunities,” said Esmaelizadeh. “If we want to see more miracles in the future we need to constantly question our own mindset. Don’t let your ancient brain limit your reality.” 

Read more about this year’s SALSS in our upcoming issue.

Photo of Meryl Comer, speaking at this year’s SALSS: Anneli Hidalgo