Ryan Institute Faculty Key Players in NY Academy of Science Symposium

Conference brings together experts on the role of inflammation in Alzheimer’s

Digging into unorthodox ideas about the origins of neurodegenerative disease is the heart of the Ryan Institute’s work. It was also the idea behind a recent symposium at the New York Academy of Sciences. “Alzheimer’s Disease as a Neurovascular Disorder” brought together more than 200 researchers, medical professionals, and patient advocates to discuss what is still seen as a radical proposition: that abnormal brain blood vessel function can lead to or worsen Alzheimer’s disease.

“The impact of bringing together a group like this is significant,” said Ryan Institute Executive Director Paula Grammas, Ph.D., who spoke at the meeting. “We’re all trying to move this research in new directions, and collaboration and discussions about what we’re doing will help make that happen.”

Robert Nelson
Robert Nelson

One co-chair of the conference was Robert Nelson, Ph.D., Ryan Research Professor of Neuroscience and vice president of MindImmune Therapeutics Inc., a pharmaceutical startup based at URI in partnership with the Ryan Institute. Nelson emphasized that the seminar brought together experts who are taking Alzheimer’s research in new directions.

“There is much disappointing news emerging from Alzheimer’s clinical trials,” Nelson said, referring to several clinical trials in which therapies were tested for their ability to reduce deposits of amyloid-beta, a protein which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “We hoped to highlight that the ‘amyloid hypothesis’ is just one piece of the larger puzzle. Progress has been held back when researchers argue about whether the root cause is amyloid or tau,” another protein whose links to Alzheimer’s disease have been intensely studied, “or inflamed blood vessels. All of these are features of Alzheimer’s.” To achieve a holistic understanding of the disease, he says, researchers must share their findings and look for common ground.

Grammas, in her presentation, wove together data from her lab with the work of other researchers to make the case that cerebrovascular dysregulation contributes to the development of Alzheimer’s—a line of research she has pursued for thirty years which is gaining increasing attention.

Other presentations addressed the importance of preventing inflammation associated with risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol; understanding communication among the brain and the immune and vascular systems; and the correlation between strokes and cognitive changes in the brain.

Nelson says the conference advanced the science of neurodegenerative disease, and also that “it struck a note of hope amid the disappointment we’ve all felt about recent clinical trial failures.”

—Anne Diffily