KINGSTON — December 13, 2011 – Modern medical science has allowed people to enjoy their golden years longer than ever before by replacing everything from hormones to joints to organs.
But while an 85-year-old might have a hip that is only 3 years old or a heart that is only 20 years old, his or her brain is still original equipment, developed in the womb, nurtured through childhood and filled with decades of knowledge and experience. But at some point, that equipment will inevitably break down.
Speaking Tuesday at the University Club, Patrick Aebischer, a world-renowned neuroscientist, said keeping people’s brains in good working order as they age is a must. URI hopes to contribute to that cause as it launched its Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Program last week. Classes will begin in the spring.
“People are living to 80, 90 and beyond, and living a good life is a product of good engineers,” he said. “We have all these spare parts for our bodies, but we have no spare part for the brain, and we are not close to having it.”
Aebischer’s lecture was part of a two-hour reception that included displays of 14 experiments performed by neuroscience students.
The University has offered courses in neurosciences for years, but it has taken until now to create a master- and doctorate-level graduate program that crosses several departments, including engineering, pharmacy and psychology.
Aebischer spoke Tuesday about the use of modified viruses, called viral vectors, to treat neuro-degenerative diseases such as amytiophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Alzheimers by slowing the loss of the brain’s motoneurons.
Aebischer’s work at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland focuses on using viruses to deliver genes that combat the degenerative disorders.
There will be more than 2 billion people on Earth over the age of 60 by the year 2050, he said, and as the population gets older, dementia rates will rise. After age 80, dementia rates jump from about 6 percent to 11 or 12 percent. By the time people reach age 90, the rate is around 26 percent and climbs to 50 percent over age 100.
While gene therapy may show promise, Aebischer said it will be a long time before it comes into practical use. Viral vectors, he said, are already making an impact on people’s mental health.
“There are 63 viral vectors being used today. This is a reality,” he said.
As his research progresses in subjects from worms to mice to primates and, eventually, to humans, Aebischer, who once taught at Brown University, said higher education will play a key role in bringing the technology and knowledge to a new generation of researchers. With the creation of the new neurosciences program, Aebischer said URI is positioned to be at the forefront of a new era in research on the human brain.
“Schools like yours are going to be key in translation,” he said. “You have the tools to do something quite significant here.
“With an aging population, this (research) is a must. I see some exciting things we can do together across the Atlantic.”
The new Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program offers master of science and doctor of philosophy degrees with the goal of educating scientists and professors who can contribute to private and public sector research and industry.
Also speaking Tuesday were University of Rhode Island President David M. Dooley and doctoral student Kyle Scully.
For more information on the University’s Interdisciplinary Neurosciences Program, call Nasser Zawai, dean of URI’s Graduate School, at (401) 874-5909.