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For neuroscientist Mark Mattson Alzheimer's is personal

AAAS member Mark Mattson, studies neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, stroke, and Parkinson's at the National Institute on Aging. (Photo: The National Institute on Aging)

Atop a hill overlooking the sprawling city of Baltimore stands the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Once inside, past tight security and a display case of antique test tubes, surgical instruments and magnifying spectacles, is a meeting room labeled by a poster of colorful brains and the phrase "The Art of Neuroscience," an art form that Mark Mattson, Chief of the Laboratory of Neuroscience, knows well.

Surrounded by note scribbling researchers, Mattson sits with clutched hands on his teacup and intent focus on the slide presentation at the front of the room. The weekly Monday morning routine gives each person in Mattson's lab, including doctoral fellows, a chance to share their ongoing studies pertaining to their respective projects on neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's, stroke, and Parkinson's. The object of the onlookers is to question each presenter's research in an attempt to bring to light a new path of experimentation.

Mattson, one of the most persistent inquirers, ends a series of back and forth banter regarding the effects of diabetes on Alzheimer's with a smirk as he looks around and dryly asks, "Is everyone still awake?"

He's answered with a unanimous chuckle before his colleagues disperse from the room and go back to the lab.

Mattson, a tall lanky man with kind eyes and a crooked smile, has been working in the field of neurodegenerative diseases for the past 20 years. After getting his Ph.D. in biology from the University of Iowa, he spent three years of postdoctoral studies in developmental neuroscience at Colorado State.

He's worked at NIA for the past 12 years, with a particular focus on Alzheimer's, a fatal brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning skills. The disease currently affects 5 million people each year, mostly above the age of 65, and is expected to reach 15 million by 2050 as the population grows, according to Mattson.

About 10 years ago, the economic and emotional impact of Alzheimer's took a personal toll on Mattson when his father started having trouble remembering newly acquired information, the most typical symptom for the disease. Just four years later, his father was formally diagnosed. His short-term memory, noticeably diminished.

Mattson said that occurrences, such as the time his father had to get a tooth extracted but could not remember why his mouth was in pain or that his tooth was even missing, "brought it home to me exactly how big a problem it was."

He believes that since a cure is difficult to find, understanding ways to prevent such neurodegenerative diseases may be of more importance right now.

"My view is that everyone is at a risk for Alzheimer's Disease. We're trying to figure out what can be done to educate people," he says.

Inside his office amidst a wall-to-wall windowsill of framed magazine covers he's contributed to, Mattson explains that the most important method a person should perform to prevent neurodegenerative diseases is to challenge themselves, both physically and mentally.

And Mattson practices what he preaches.

His everyday work routine could include dissecting a brain, writing manuscripts describing his most recent research discoveries, or managing the peer review process for Ageing Research Reviews and NeuroMolecular Medicine, two medical journals he presides over as Editor-in-Chief. When he's not in the lab or spending time with his family, he's most likely outdoors biking, running, tending to his garden, or raising his chickens...all eight of them.

Mattson explains that when the brain is engaged, a secreted protein, BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), is produced. BDNF strengthens the hippocampus that is susceptible to being attacked by the amyloid that may lead to Alzheimer's.

Research in Mattson's lab and other labs found that mice who live in a "playground" area or with running wheels in their cages, have a heightened amount of BDNF in the brain when compared with mice in a controlled neutral environment.

But it's not just thinking and exercise that can protect their minds.

Mattson's lab is most recently researching the effects caloric intake has on mice brains. When their energy consumption is decreased, BDNF increases. In conjunction with this finding, his lab has found that diabetic mice have impaired learning and memory abilities, thus creating a possible link between diabetes and obesity and the development of neurodegenerative disease.

This connection has led to the clinical trial of using the diabetic drug, Byetta, on patients in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The drug improves the control of blood glucose in diabetic patients. By using this same drug on Alzheimer's patients, Mattson's team hopes to find that the improvement of glucose regulation will slow down or stop the progression of dementia.

Mattson doesn't definitively know what the future will hold, but his belief in the importance of research remains unwavering.

"We have to be optimistic. In science, you try something and see what happens."

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    Colleen Shalby