Greg Petsko is captivating in first event of Cafe Science

Gatherings to feature Brandeis' premier science professors

Photo/Mike Lovett

Greg Petsko, professor of biochemistry and chemistry

There were quite a few surprising elements to Brandeis professor Greg Petsko’s informal talk kicking off Brandeis’ “Cafe Science” series at Elephant Walk Restaurant in downtown Waltham Monday evening.

First was the venue. To hear the Gyula and Katica Tauber professor of biochemistry and chemistry speak, usually one must attend one of his standing-room-only classes in the cavernous Gerstenzang lecture hall on campus.

At first glance, the juxtaposition of a trendy, informal restaurant and the sobering subject of Alzheimer’s disease seemed an odd pairing, but it worked. Elephant Walk's function hall was packed. Some of the crowd was made up of other Brandeis researchers and faculty, but most were non-scientists, undergrads and Waltham residents.

Another surprising, and less appealing, aspect of the evening was the stark future Petsko described as Alzheimer's proliferates in our aging society, affecting the lives of almost all of us. Demographic changes in how long we live, coupled with forecasts of a coming wave of new diagnoses, threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, he said. Of Americans aged 65 and over, one in eight has Alzheimer’s; nearly half of people aged 85 and older have the disease. And the numbers are getting worse.

“We’re living much longer than just 50 years ago, and unfortunately with increased age come increased vulnerabilities,” Petsko explained. “Alzheimer’s is a disease of aging.”

Today, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, he said. By 2050, as many as 16 million will suffer from the neurodegenerative disease. Today it is the sixth leading cause of death, but by 2030 it will be third leading cause.

Alzheimer’s wreaks havoc by robbing people of a central element of self and identity — the memory. It also destroys the lives of family caregivers, who suffer from much higher rates of depression than the general population. Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving on their own health, Alzheimer’s caregivers had $8.7 billion in additional health care costs in 2011, according to Petsko.

Alzheimer’s is also difficult to diagnose. Currently the only certain way is through examining post-mortem brain tissue.

Petsko criticized the government for slashing spending on basic research into neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“Its one of the few areas where throwing money at something actually works! Witness advances in cancer and HIV-AIDS treatments,” Petsko said. “Right now Alzheimer’s research is dwarfed by research dollars spent on other diseases.”

The World Alzheimer’s Report projects that at current rates of growth, the number of people living worldwide with Alzheimer's will grow to more than 100 million by 2050. According to the World Health Organization, in the absence of a cure, Alzheimer's will surpass cancer, AIDS and all cardiovascular diseases in prevalence. Despite this, Alzheimer’s remains significantly underfunded compared to these other diseases. In 2010 alone, the global cost of Alzheimer's was conservatively estimated at over $600 billion.

The hour-long discussion ended on a note of hope, however.

Petsko described several promising new approaches researchers at Brandeis and Columbia are developing to disrupt the development of the "plaques and tangles" in the brain first described in 1906 by the German physician Alois Alzheimer. “The problems seem insurmountable,” Petsko stated, “but the ones worth tackling always do.”

Will these new approaches stop Alzheimer’s? “I don’t know,” Petsko said, “but we must put our best effort into finding a cure. The alternative could be a very troubled future for most of us.”

A partnership between the Office of the Provost and the Division of Science, Brandeis Cafe Science is a series of informal talks by some of the university’s premier science professors. Science Cafes are an increasingly popular grassroots phenomenon. Today there are more than 250 across the United States, most associated with colleges and universities.

On Monday, May 7, Physics Prof. Jim Bensinger will discuss “What’s New at the Large Hadron Collider?” On Monday, June 4, Biology Prof. Jim Haber will give a talk on “Studying Cancer by Studying Yeast Cells.” Both those events also will be held at The Elephant Walk, starting at 6 to 7 p.m.

Categories: General, Science and Technology

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