“At a time when there is disappointment about the lack of an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, it seems clear that we need to have a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of disease” – Professor Michel Goedert
The Brain Prize was established in 2010 and it is a prestigious international scientific award that is awarded annually by the Lundbeck Foundation. With 1 million euro it is the world’s most valuable prize for brain research. It is awarded to one or more scientists who are currently active in research and who are considered to have made an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.
This year the Brain Prize was awarded to four scientists carrying out ground-breaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s Disease: Professor John Hardy (London), Bart De Strooper (London and Leuven), Michel Goedert (Cambridge) and Christian Haass (Munich). The award recognizes how important it is that we improve our basic understanding of the mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“These four outstanding European scientists have been rewarded for their fundamental discoveries unravelling molecular and genetic causes of the disease that have provided a basis for the current attempts to diagnose, treat and possibly even prevent neurodegenerative brain diseases. The award recognises that there is more to Alzheimer´s disease than amyloid, and that the field of dementia research is more than Alzheimer´s disease alone.”
– Professor Anders Björklund, Chairman of the Lundbeck Foundation Brain Prize selection committee
Professor John Hardy has long been working on Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias, as well as Parkinson’s disease. His work is amongst the most highly cited in neuroscience. He discovered mutations in the amyloid protein in a family with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Based on this Professor Hardy proposed the ground-breaking “amyloid hypothesis”, in which he suggested that Alzheimer’s is caused by the build-up of amyloid in the brain. This hypothesis has shaped Alzheimer’s research for over two decades and has significantly impacted our understanding of other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease.
Professor Bart De Strooper’s work aims to understand how mutations in the presenilin genes can cause Alzheimer’s disease. He discovered that the presenilin protein ‘cuts’ other protein into smaller pieces. This is an important process in normal cell processing. Mutations in the presenilin gene alter the way the presenilin protein ‘cuts’ other proteins and can lead to the production of abnormal amyloid protein. Amyloid protein forms plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which are thought to affect the functioning of the brain.
Professor Michel Goedert’s research has played a key role in determining the role of the tau protein in Alzheimer’s disease. When this protein acts abnormally it forms clusters that are thought to be toxic to the brain. Different tau clusters are associated with distinct neurodegenerative diseases, sometimes referred to as tauopathies. Professor Goedert showed that tau clusters can spread along nerve cell pathways, i.e. neighbouring brain areas can become affected as the disease progresses. It is thought that this process starts decades before the first symptoms appear. Therefore, if you can stop the progression of the protein, it may be possible to find ways to prevent and treat the disease.
Professor Christian Haass started working on Alzheimer’s disease in 1990 and focused on the generation and metabolism of the amyloid protein. He discovered that amyloid is produced in the healthy brain under normal circumstances and is not always part of a pathological process. Working together with Professor Hardy, he demonstrated how amyloid is generated and how mutations in the amyloid gene affect amyloid production. More recently, his focus has shifted on studying inflammation in neurodegeneration. He has shown that some genetic mutations that cause Alzheimer’s disease change the function of special immune cells called microglia. This has opened a new avenue to finding potential new treatments by altering the activity of these microglia.
As scientists continue to deepen our understanding of the workings of the brain, new ways to diagnose, treat, and prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative conditions will be discovered.
“Science is not always right, but it is the only way to go to find the truth and for humans to progress.”
– Professor Christian Haass