Prof. Dr. Christian Behl is a Professor of Pathobiochemistry and Chair and Director of the Institute of Pathobiochemistry at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany. His research expertise is on neurodegeneration, the cause of a number of diseases linked to old age like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, and on ways of preventing novel concepts based on basic molecular mechanisms, for instance autophagy.
DWIH: Hi, Dr. Behl! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for us. Let’s get to it. Can you describe your research and area of expertise to us?
Behl: My scientific background is biochemistry and neurobiology. The ultimate goal of my research is to understand how the biochemistry of cells, in particular nerve cells, alters during aging and how these changes impact the development of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. We have to realize that these disorders of the brain are highly age-associated, and they develop over decades.
DWIH: Is Alzheimer’s more widespread today than before?
Behl: Yes. The reason is that people are getting older these days, which is basically a very good thing. Hundred years ago, people died much earlier from other diseases that are now treatable, which extends our lifespan, giving age-related neurodegeneration ample time to develop.
DWIH: Neurodegeneration is likely a concept that many of our readers don’t understand or at least don’t consider the consequences of. What causes neurodegeneration and what can be done to lessen its risk?
Behl: The term “neurodegeneration” is an umbrella term labeling a wide portfolio of different diseases that cause a continuous decline in brain/nerve cell function, over time leading to mostly severe cognitive impairment and/or motor dysfunction. These include rare ones, such as strictly genetically caused cases, as well as sporadic forms of age-related brain disorders that are affecting more and more people as they get older. The exact pathogenesis of most neurodegenerative diseases is still far from understood, rendering prevention as well as therapy difficult.
At our workshop on October 24th we will address the pathological mechanisms known to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease as well as some related and more rare diseases, aiming to uncover parallels in their pathogenetic development and the consequence or opportunities for prevention therapy. A special focus is put on autophagy, the key recycling process of all cells.
In general – if it’s not genetic – reducing risk factors and having a healthy lifestyle, including eating well and exercising as well as continuously challenging your brain, is always the best way to go – but it’s no guarantee. At least until we know what the actual cause is.
DWIH: Comparing the prevalence of neurodegenerative diseases in Europe and the U.S., do you see any differences?
Behl: The prevalence is similar in industrial and developed countries when you bring it down to percentage of the population. In the US, estimates count 5.8 million Americans of all ages with Alzheimer’s. This number includes around 5.6 million people age 65 and older, and approximately 200,000 individuals under the age of 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer’s.
DWIH: Is it true that men and women have different risk factors for the condition?
Behl: Interesting question: in principal women and men have the same susceptibility for Alzheimer’s, but in industrial countries women live around 6 years longer on average, consequently leading to a higher percentage of affected women; actually around 70% of Alzheimer patients are women.
Having worked on the molecular mechanisms of neurodegeneration and neuroprotection for over 25 years, I do not expect a magic pill to treat Alzheimer’s in the near future – not at all!
Dr. Christian Behl
DWIH: Where would you like to see the status of Alzheimer’s research and treatment in ten years?
Having worked on the molecular mechanisms of neurodegeneration and neuroprotection for over 25 years, I do not expect a magic pill to treat Alzheimer’s in the near future – not at all! We have to realize that Alzheimer’s disease is a very individual disorder with an individual, very personal history of development, individual risk factors, etc. There is some understanding that there might be a wider portfolio of treatment possibilities for different types and subtypes of Alzheimer’s. But, we are far from having something in our hands to effectively cure the disease once it has started. My understanding is that we might be able to take steps forward in the context of prevention. For example, the stabilization of nerve cells in our brain, to make them more resistant to age-related impacts and disease, might be a good way to go/path to take. Here autophagy comes into play! So, it is to some extent prevention versus therapy, with prevention perhaps being more easy to achieve.
DWIH: Alzheimer’s is a disease that has affected nearly every family. Beyond the biological and medical, what cultural and societal effects is this disease having?
We have to accept that having the chance to live longer -a large portion of the people born today will most likely reach age 100 and older- means that we will see more people in our society with dementia and even be affected in our families or ourselves; it’s basically a trade-in, longer life versus higher disease risk. We have to find the time for and the understanding of affected patients and recognize that they are part of our aging society. As long as we don’t have any means to prevent or cure, it will become an even heavier burden on all of us.
We have to start thinking out of the box and invest in constructive dialogue, cross-linking all kinds of resources to create a network of open-minded scientists in order to find new solutions for old unsolved medical problems; today one would call it “Think-Tank”. For us, the New York Workshop is a step in that direction.
Join the DWIH in welcoming Dr. Behl to New York for a public panel discussion on “Alzheimer’s, Related Disorders and Autophagy” on Thursday, October 24, co-chaired by his New York colleague and fellow AD & Autophagy researcher Dr. Ralph A. Nixon . Event details at https://www.dwih-newyork.org/en/event/alzheimers-workshop/.
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