Town Talks: The Aging Problem

Town Talks: The Aging Problem

Come learn about the latest research in neurodegenerative disorders and eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, July 14, 6:00 p.m., Telluride Mountain Village Conference Center. Talk hosted by the Telluride Science Research Center. Admission is free. Cash bar starts at 5:30 p.m.

Rohit Pappu, credit, Washington University, St. Louis

Rohit Pappu, credit, Washington University, St. Louis

If there’s one thing we can’t control as humans, it’s aging, the inevitable, natural process of life. No amount of plastic surgery can change getting older. However, when it comes to aging, physical changes such as wrinkles or grey hair are nothing to gripe about and should actually be embraced, since often what’s hidden underneath the skin is cause for concern.

“What we’re starting to think about is that past a certain age we’re all basically evolutionary relics. We’ve served our purpose, we’ve made our children, so there’s no optimization in our systems to keep us from getting Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. You don’t see children with these diseases,” said Rohit Pappu, Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis.

On Tuesday, July 14, Telluride Science Research Center is hosting this week’s Town Talk on neurodegenerative diseases and how aging changes the brain. The event featuring Rohit Pappu takes place in the Telluride Mountain Village Conference Center at 6:00 p.m. Admission is free; cash bar starts at 5:30 p.m.

“The brain is amazing for many reasons, largely because of its self-maintenance,” explained Pappu. “For example, specific cells clean up the ‘trash’ so that everything can work accordingly. As people age, though, these cells can get worse at their job. Proteins gradually build up creating masses, or plaques, which can block cell signaling and result in the effects seen from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.”

Pappu’s research aims to answer the burning question about how cells deal with these problems over a lifetime: Does the cells’ dying cause the formation of these masses or are the masses just an artifact from the death of cells? And does the stress from these masses give rise to the degeneration of particular neurons?

“You can imagine what would happen if the garbage men went on strike in Telluride for a few months,” Pappu said. “In a similar vein, we believe that the cause of neurodegenerative disorders is tied to stress from the accumulating garbage and that coping mechanisms somehow weaken as a function of aging.”

Pappu’s research looks at how the plaques form and how they can be modulated. In fact, his team is starting to understand how particular proteins act as sensors to recognize the formation of these deposits—sensors that help stop the process.

“What we’re asking is this: What machinery in the cell can help me disperse this mass into a smaller species? Then comes the ability to collect the garbage, take it out, chop it up and then we’re done,” said Pappu.

The major obstacle to these studies is time. Using model organisms such as worms, Pappu’s team can only test the buildup of plaque over a few days or months, but this time span is nothing compared to the decades-long lives of humans.



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