In conversation with Benedict Albensi

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Benedict ALBENSI is the principal investigator in the division of neurodegenerative disorders at the St. Boniface Research Centre and associate professor in the University of Manitoba's department of pharmacology. The researcher is studying the brain and memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's disease. The Chicago native's research hit close to home in 2013 when his mother was diagnosed with dementia. He recently talked with the Free Press.

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This article was published 17/01/2015 (2762 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Benedict ALBENSI is the principal investigator in the division of neurodegenerative disorders at the St. Boniface Research Centre and associate professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of pharmacology. The researcher is studying the brain and memory impairments associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The Chicago native’s research hit close to home in 2013 when his mother was diagnosed with dementia. He recently talked with the Free Press.

 

Q. What are you researching?

Submitted photo Scientist Benedict Albensi with his four daughters and mother. His research has hit close to home since his mother was diagnosed with dementia.

A. We’ve got two main programs. One involves just looking at the basic biological basis of memory, neurochemistry, genetics and behavioural aspects of memories, like how we form memories. The second program has to do with memory impairment and disease like Alzheimer’s and we also tinker a bit with understanding epilepsy and connections between epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

 

Q. Why did you get into this area of research?

Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press Benedict Albensi

A. I started out as a kid always being interested in science, but when I first went to college I went to art and photography school. We were required to go to a lecture on the brain and the two hemispheres of the brain — the left and right and how it worked. I just got sucked in and I felt like I had to get back to science that I was passionate about.

 

Q. Has any of that it come in handy with what you’re doing now?

A. Most definitely. Publication involves writing, it involves images and figures. I’ve drawn figures for covers of different medical journals. I think it helps to exercise the creative process, which we don’t often do in science (but) we should do. We emphasize critical thinking but we don’t often emphasize creative thinking.

 

Q. Did you ever think that your research would hit so close to home, with your own mother having dementia?

A. In some ways I’m not that surprised my mom has dementia because 50 per cent of those over the age of 85 in the U.S. have dementia. My mom is 91. She turned 90 in September 2013. In November of that year she got two diagnoses at the same time — congestive heart failure and profound dementia. It’s hard to believe they don’t go hand in hand as well. I have my suspicions about some of that — with her condition, she went downhill very quickly.

 

Q. Were there any signs of dementia before her diagnosis?

A. Before that, she was having memory lapses and some of the pretty standard warning signals — agitation, getting into fights with others and that sort of thing. My mom lived in an assisted-living facility for a while before moving to a rest home… I think that when she was diagnosed with dementia the most profound change in her behaviour is that she was always very talkative. She would always dominate the conversation with others. Very quickly, she stopped wanting to communicate. She just didn’t lead the conversation. She didn’t really even talk anymore. And when she does try to talk, her sentences don’t make any sense. The not talking at all was a very dramatic change and that happened very quickly.

 

Q. How has seeing what’s happened with your mom affected the work that you do or the way you approach your work?

A. I don’t think it’s affected the day-to-day work, but what it has affected in some ways is just an appreciation for the patient’s family and an appreciation for how little we can do. There’s a huge disconnect between theory and what actually gets administered to an individual in a rest home. For example, my mom, because she is agitated and irritated and trying to leave, she often gets chemical restraint. She’ll get diazepam and other psychoactive substances to calm her down so she’s not fighting with the staff and fighting with the rest home because none of the AD (Alzheimer’s disease) drugs work very well. That’s really the issue. We don’t have any drugs that work.

 

Q. What do you hope to achieve in your lab?

A. In our Alzheimer’s disease work, we are looking at potential gender differences in mitochondrial function. We’re trying to determine if mitochondrial dysfunction occurs early in AD — those are two realistic goals that we should be able to meet in the next year or two.

 

Q. What is the mitochondria?

Think about the body being divided into cells and then those cells into compartments just like a house has rooms. There’s one compartment with the mitochondria that is like the furnace room of your house. It generates the heat and the energy and your cells need that. Just like your home needs heat, our bodies need energy and we get this energy from the food we eat. When we eat food ,we convert that food into energy through a complicated biochemical process. Not all but most of that happens in mitochondria and we generate something called ATP. These molecules of ATP get broken down into smaller molecules and in doing so they release energy. That’s what everything revolves around. If we’re not generating ATP we’re going to die.

Our hypothesis that we’re testing is — does mitochondrial function, which is part of brain energy metabolism, get affected early in Alzheimer’s disease? We think there are differences between men and women because we’re seeing a difference in female and male mice.

 

Q. The Alzheimer Society of Manitoba says 72 per cent of Canadians with Alzheimer’s disease are women — why are more women than men affected?

A. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is age and, in general, women still live longer than men, but we don’t know if that’s the reason or not.

The three main areas scientists are working on involve the physiology of sex hormones, brain energy metabolism, which is connected to the mitochondria, and the third area is genetics. We are working in two of those areas.

With regard to basic memory, we’re trying to understand the molecules that play a role in memory formation — the molecules that we look at are very specialized molecules. They’re called transcription factors. Again they’re proteins. Their special role is to turn genes on or off. We’re very interested in not only in which molecules they are that turn these genes on or off, we want to know which genes they’re turning on and off. What does that do to the memory? Does that make memory worse? Does it make memory better? Is it connected to certain types of memory? Is it short-term memory or is it long-term memory? We want to know the role these different protein molecules play and how this regulation affects memory in general — normal memory.

With mitochondrial functions, we inherit all of our mitochondrial DNA from our mothers. That predisposes us to inheriting potential mutations and passing them on to our female offspring.

 

Q. Do you have daughters?

A. I have four daughters.

 

Q. Does having a mom who has dementia bring any added zeal to what you’re doing?

A. It makes me realize how depressing it is that there’s such a disconnect between potential therapies we’re working on or mechanisms we’re working on and what’s available to the individual. There’s nothing that’s really good. I have a lot of hope for prevention, that maybe we’ll be able to create some preventative strategies and preventive therapies but, for late-stage disease, it’s very dismal right now.

(However) we have to have hope since new treatments are being tested every day.

 

The Alzheimer Society of Manitoba is holding a free public education seminar dubbed “Dementia – Learning through the Arts” on Jan. 22 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the Samuel N. Cohen Auditorium at St. Boniface Hospital Research Centre – 351 Tache Ave. The seminar includes a play that will set the stage for a panel discussion with experts on dementia.

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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