Birdie Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development and family studies, and graduate student Yoojin Lee look at biomarkers to address questions about how the brain is shaped by developmental milestones like puberty. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Brain research aims to reduce effects of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease

From music therapy to better nutrition and exercise, College of Human Sciences researchers are providing expertise in Iowa State University’s revolutionary brain initiative aimed at reducing effects of debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Seven human scientists — Auriel Willette and Manju Reddy in food science and human nutrition; Elizabeth Stegemöller, Ann Smiley-Oyen, and Marian Kohut in kinesiology; and Carl Weems and Elizabeth “Birdie” Shirtcliff in human development and family studies — are among more than 60 researchers from at least 17 institutions collaborating on the interdisciplinary ISU Brain Initiative.

Willette, an assistant professor in food science and human nutrition, is a co-principal investigator on the project. He brings expertise in brain neurochemistry and looks at how obesity, insulin resistance, and certain enzymes can impact the brain and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and how certain proteins can slow such memory loss.

“We have begun to jointly examine what is going on in human diseases and animal models that mimic those diseases,” Willette said. “Put simply, for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, we can now take my correlational findings between body and brain in hundreds of people and directly see if there is any cause and effect going on, to see if we can better understand what is causing disease and offering up new treatment targets.”

Weems, professor and chair of human development and family studies, is a developmental psychologist with expertise on limbic brain regions related to emotional regulation.

He studies development of the amygdala and hippocampus — groups of nuclei in the temporal lobes of the brain involved in experiencing emotions and memory — and is collaborating with Willette on research attempting to clarify the role of age and stress on amygdala volumes.

“Such knowledge may help clarify the effect of disease versus normal aging processes on the brain,” Weems said.

The brain initiative is led by Anumantha Kanthasamy, Iowa State’s Clarence Hartley Covault Distinguished Professor and Lloyd Chair in veterinary medicine who is also chair of biomedical sciences and director of the Iowa Center for Advanced Neurotoxicology. He studies the complex pathological processes underlying Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Music and movement improves quality of life

Stegemöller, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in kinesiology, uses singing, dancing, and boxing to improve motor and non-motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, as well as quality of life.

Singing groups organized by Stegemöller have shown that singing improves the voice, respiratory control, and swallow of people with Parkinson’s.

Stegemöller also joins Smiley-Oyen in spearheading a music and movement outreach program, based on research showing that musical cues help people with Parkinson’s disease overcome their tendency to freeze during movements. In addition, formal research on using boxing as therapy will begin this fall.

“It is important to remember to care for those who are currently living with the disease so that they can remain active members of society, reduce medical costs, and improve quality of life,” Stegemöller said. “Programs such as ours are providing cost-effective therapy that keeps our participants engaged and improves quality of life.”

Certain foods prevent disease progression

Reddy, a professor in food science and human nutrition, brings expertise in nutrition to the brain initiative. Her research looks at iron excess associated with Parkinson’s disease.  

The research focuses on the protective effect of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory food components on normalizing the altered iron metabolism, thereby preventing the progression of Parkinson’s disease. Patients, animals, and in vitro models all assist Reddy in addressing her research.

“Our studies, linking green tea consumption to Parkinson’s disease prevention, suggest the importance of nutrition in brain research,” Reddy said. “Nutrition by itself may not treat brain diseases, but may at least help prevent the progression of the disease with far fewer side effects than medications.”

Matt Jefferson, a graduate student working with Kohut through Iowa State’s interdepartmental program in neuroscience, is studying how a high-fat diet may impact neuroinflammation. Such inflammation of the nervous tissue is linked both with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common neurodegenerative disease, and Parkinson’s, the second most common.

Using biomarkers to determine stress, disease

And Shirtcliff, an associate professor in human development and family studies, examines people’s saliva to study stress — which is recognized as a contributor to every single one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States.

Her research looks at levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that increases when a person is in difficult or uncomfortable situations. She also examines testosterone and other biomarkers of immune functioning or cellular aging. This research is rooted in neuroscience as it examines how functional activation in the brain changes stress and sex hormones in the moment of activation.

“Hormone biomarkers are uniquely suited for the brain initiative because they change neural functioning in the brain,” Shirtcliff said. “So when we connect central brain activity with peripheral physiological functioning, we are gaining a whole-body perspective on the individual. Knowing how the body and the brain cope with stress when it happens has the potential to improve people’s health because so much health risk shows up when individuals experience stress.”

Through the brain initiative, graduate student Yoojin Lee is collaborating with Willette and Shirtcliff, looking at biomarkers that are important in youth and in older age. The research is addressing fundamental questions about how the brain is shaped by developmental milestones like puberty, and the impact of that development across the lifespan.

Connecting disciplines to solve grand challenges

Several ISU Brain Initiative researchers last September received $450,000 in seed funding over three years from the Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative at Iowa State, with the goal of using big data to develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

A key part of the president’s initiative includes establishing connections between different disciplines to come up with new solutions to society’s grand challenges.

College of Human Sciences researchers join with those from engineering, veterinary medicine, business, and liberal arts and sciences in the multidisciplinary effort to accelerate state-of-the-art brain research.

Ames businesses are also lending their expertise, along with researchers at the University of Iowa and those in California, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and overseas in India.