Dr. Jason Shepherd is a professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah. He was granted the $2.5 million Ben Barres Early Career Acceleration Award from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative to study a potential cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
“My lab is generally interested in how information is stored in the brain. How does memory work at the molecular and cellular level.”
The grant will fund five years of research.
“We concentrated on a particular gene called Arc," he said. "If you take that gene out of mice, they look normal and they behave normally, but they don’t have any long-term memory. They can’t remember anything. So it’s an important gene for memory, and we’ve been trying to figure out why it’s important and what it’s doing in the brain.”
Arc is found in all brains, not just the brains of people with neurodegenerative diseases, but the gene behaves a bit differently in people who have diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“ We think that Arc could be responsible for eliminating toxic proteins from healthy cells, it takes those proteins out of the cells and moves them to other cells in the brain that are geared towards breaking down those proteins. We think that if you have too much Arc, they basically overload that garbage disposal system. So now you’ve got all that toxic protein accumulating in other parts of the brain because it’s getting shunted towards these garbage cells but they can’t really handle it. So we think basically this whole pathway is responsible eventually for spreading the pathology across the brain. We want to investigate if that is true and maybe interfere with that pathway at some point to block that pathology.”
This research could contribute to an earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s which would improve the efficacy of treatments that are currently available.
“By the time someone has symptoms that they come into the hospital or get checked out by the doctor, it’s almost too late because those cells are already starting to die. So what we want to do is be able to give a therapy way before cells are dying.”