By Matt Olson
On Monday, Jan. 16, 2015, Dr. Gregory Petsko delivered a public lecture in the Nott Memorial entitled, “The Coming Epidemic of Neurodegenerative Diseases and What Science Is — and Should Be — Doing About It.” The lecture and Petsko’s visit to Union are part of the Phi Beta Kappa annual Visiting Scholars series.
Petsko is the Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and previously worked at Brandeis University as the Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry.
His research focuses on neurodegenerative diseases, specifically Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Petsko has narrowed his research on the proteins that do not function properly during each disease’s progression. He hopes that his research can lead to a viable treatment option or a possible preventative medication.
The lecture in the Nott Memorial focused on aging and how neurodegenerative diseases affect the elderly. There are currently about 11 million people in the United States over the age of 80, and this number is projected to triple over the next 40 years.
Petsko noted that one of the major causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is old age. By 2050, the number of countries with 20 percent or more individuals over the age of 65 will increase nearly five-fold, including countries like the United States and China.
This increase in age is due in part to medical advances that are increasing how long humans live. In 1840, the average life expectancy worldwide was 45 years. Today, life expectancy is around 85 years and is increasing by five hours every day.
This life expectancy increase, coupled with the exponential increase in incidences of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as one ages, will lead to the two diseases affecting many more people around the world by the time students currently at Union reach retirement age.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by two different malfunctions in protein folding. These misfoldings result in protein aggregates that cause neurons to stop functioning properly, and ultimately leads to nerve cell death.
While the cause of these misfolds is not completely understood, Petsko and his colleagues are investigating the role of amyloid precursor protein recycling, which, when not done correctly, may lead to protein aggregates.
For Petsko, the most alarming fact has been the cost of treatment for individuals who currently have either Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases.
In 2010, the total cost for care in the United States for all diseases and disorders associated with the brain and nervous system cost about $335 billion. By 2050, the total cost will rise to close to $1 trillion. For perspective, the GDP of the United States in 2010 was about $12.7 trillion.
Petsko is optimistic that if scientists can find the cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, many other neurological diseases would also be cured because many neurological diseases are caused by similar mechanisms.
They are also considering the evidence that an individual with a neurologic disease is far less likely to get cancer than an individual without a neurologic disease.
To lower your risk for either Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, Petsko and many other scientists believe that the best prevention is keeping the mind fresh. He said, “Use it or lose it definitely applies here.” He also said that caffeine may lower your risk of Parkinson’s disease.
Petsko challenged the students of Union to seek out new answers to these questions, because the college students of today will be the ones who will be the next to work on finding cures to these debilitating neurological diseases.