By Wendy Sarubbi | May 13, 2011 1:46 pm

As the population ages, so do the instances of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and stroke, and on Tuesday, Dr. Sic Chan, assistant professor at the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, presented his latest research on alternative strategies to target the pathological initiators of neuron damage.

In a Luminary Series talk at the Orlando Museum of Art, Dr. Chan discussed the debilitating consequences of neurological disorders, which can last for years and create tremendous hardship for patients and their families. Today, neurodegenerative diseases afflict more than 50 million people a year, and the cost of their care exceeds more than $400 billion.

Treating brain disorders is complicated because “the brain is the most complex organ in the body,” Dr. Chan said. “The brain contributes to all of the bodies activities ranging from heart beat to mood, learning and memory. The brain is what makes us human.”

Currently, medicine has no drugs to keep Alzheimer’s disease from spreading or to prevent stroke, which is a clot that blocks the blood supply to the brain and is the third leading cause of death.

Alzheimer’s patients suffer from plaque in the brain, caused by a high level of a protein called Numb. Stress may play a role in increasing Numb protein, which can be 3 to 4 times higher than normal in Alzheimer’s patients. The challenge is that by the time a patient has symptoms of the disease, 50 to 60 percent of the brain’s neurons have already been damaged, Dr. Chan said.

Dr. Chan’s team is looking at therapies that would suppress the expression or the activity of the Numb protein in the brain.

Stroke kills about 150,000 people a year and there are 4 million stroke survivors in the United States. When stroke happens, neurons die because of a calcium overload in the brain. Dr. Chan is looking at developing approaches that will interfere with this calcium overload process. His research suggests that blocking calcium overload immediately after a stroke can protect patients against stroke-induced brain damage.

Many audience members were interested in lifestyle changes that might prevent the onset of neurodegenerative disease. Dr. Chan said current research suggests that poor diet, lack of exercise and stress play a role in diseases of the brain.

As she closed the Luminary Series talk, Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean of the College of Medicine, summarized the research data this way. “We need to eat less, exercise more and reduce stress,” she said. “Let’s all stay well.”

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