Not all of the mysteries of life lie in our genetic code,” says University of Ottawa professor Steffany Bennett.
Bennett studies Alzheimer’s Disease, a devastating form of dementia that sharply erodes a sufferer’s memory, personality and everyday functioning. It affects some 24.3 million people in North America alone.
Because Alzheimer’s has genetic causes, it makes many people feel helpless, prey to whatever cruel destiny is preordained in their DNA. Bennett’s research, though, demonstrates that people have more control over their neurodegenerative fate than they might think.
She studies how fat in the brain affects the onset and progress of Alzheimer’s.
“Because each person has a different coating of brain fat at any given moment as a result of metabolism, diet and genetic makeup, this composition could render us susceptible or resistant to neurodegenerative disease from moment to moment,” she says. “How these small fat molecules are modified likely affects our ability to resist the disease.”
In other words, even if your genes make you predisposed to Alzheimer’s, you may be able to take action that keeps your brain healthier longer. It also helps explain how initial memory loss due to Alzheimer’s can sometimes be reversed.
“Confused and disoriented patients can revert to being alert and coherent within minutes. This ability to return to oneself raises hope, because it suggests a metabolic component to early synaptic dysfunction that has only just begun to be explored,” she says.
Some of her recent research showed how a build-up of a particular fat molecule in brain tissue triggered some of the cellular changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
“This work provides proof that targeted intervention in lipid metabolism has a real impact on Alzheimer’s pathology,” she says.
She is excited to be doing research that provides hope for people with a condition that often makes them feel hopeless. She also takes pride in the fact that she isn’t exploring these new research avenues alone. Bennett’s Neural Regeneration Laboratory is part of an international network of labs devoted to cracking the mystery of how to address neural degeneration.
“This is not just the work of one person’s laboratory,” she says. “This is all of us working together to make a difference.”