Spotlight on Alzheimer’s Association Funded Researcher – Maria Elizabeth Rodrigues, Ph.D.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, Alzheimer’s Association is celebrating Hispanics/Latinos fighting to #ENDALZ through volunteerism, advocacy, raising awareness & research. We are grateful for their vital work to move us closer to a world without Alzheimer’s.

This month, we are proud to shine the spotlight on Alzheimer’s Association funded researcher Dr. Maria Rodrigues. Dr. Rodrigues works in the Department of Physiology at Emory University and is currently studying the impact of environmental factors such as lifestyle on the brain function. Dr. Rodrigues recently presented findings from her studies at the world’s largest gathering of researchers, The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC).

Dr. Rodrigues with Linda Davidson, Executive Director, Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: Hispanic Heritage Month is about recognizing the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. Your Alzheimer’s research and presentation of findings at AAIC could change the lives of so many. That must be a powerful feeling. What are some ways that you think people could benefit from your studies?

Dr. Rodrigues: Well, I am a Latin woman working in neuroscience, and I value this critical event. Because I have a clinical background, I really know the importance of day-by-day actions for impacting disease prevention.

The Latin community has a high incidence of conditions that increase the risk of dementia in older ages, such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It is imperative to offer health services and facilitate assertive information (especially in Spanish) to be disseminated in the Latin community.

Changing habits is not an easy task, and it will work better if the whole family is involved in the process. Fighting the triggers that might increase the number of patients with Alzheimer’s in this community is very important. Again, I am talking about a good lifestyle for delaying and preventing disease. As an educator, teaching young people is a good starting point to disseminate good ideas about Alzheimer’s prevention.

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: Your studies primarily focus on insulin impairment and inflammation. Can you tell us about the findings that you presented at the conference?

Dr. Rodrigues: Type 2 diabetes is a condition that causes insulin insensitivity, accumulation of glucose in the bloodstream, and a decrease in the ability of cells to use glucose. Previous studies suggest that people with insulin problems (even the ones not diabetic yet) have energy imbalance and a greater chance of developing dementia than healthy individuals. Inflammation is a crucial process that connects and impacts most health problems in obesity that cause type 2 diabetes.

The tumor necrosis factor (TNF) is an important inflammatory agent associated with Alzheimer’s and Type 2 diabetes. Unfortunately, to date, approaches to treat the TNF-dependent inflammation present in insulin dysregulation (Type 2 diabetes the body is not able to use insulin properly)

have been unsuccessful. We aim to develop an efficient therapeutic strategy to treat the inflammatory conditions that increase insulin disturbance as a risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Our preliminary data is promising, and we hope to share our first findings with our fellow scientist colleagues soon.

We hope that the decrease in inflammation will promote an improvement in insulin and energy utilization by the brain cells and in other features associated with AD in our experimental model. If successful, this study will help the future development of safe and novel anti-inflammatory treatments for Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases associated with insulin impairment.

Dr. Rodrigues presenting at the 2019 AAIC

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: What prompted your Alzheimer’s Association funded research? A theory or other studies?

Dr. Rodrigues: I would say both theory and other studies. We know that Alzheimer’s is a condition that presents a powerful genetic component. However, the last decade’s research and our own studies indicate that many exposures that impact our bodies throughout our lives can increase Alzheimer’s risk. More specifically, our defense system (the immune system) can be dysregulated by external factors like an unhealthy diet and psychological stress, predisposing our body to inflammatory alterations associated with neurodegeneration and Alzheimer’s. Neurodegeneration is a process associated with several diseases, including Alzheimer’s that promotes a progressive death of the cells in your brain that are responsible to form memories and that controls other body functions (neurons). 

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: What are the main conclusions we can draw from your research?

Dr. Rodrigues: Most importantly, Chronic inflammation is not suitable for your brain, and it is possible to avoid it.Our previous studies have shown that overconsumption of a diet rich in fat and carbohydrates impacts brain insulin interactions, the immune system, and body regulation (including the gut structure and function). These maladaptive processes increase the risk of neurodegenerative brain conditions.

We also found that psychological stress isolated or combined with a high caloric diet dysregulates insulin and cholesterol and promotes inflammation. These alterations are harmful to brain health even more in the context of aging. Therefore, a healthy lifestyle is essential for acquiring longevity with late-life quality. Thus, we need to take care of our immune system because our immune system should work neatly and tightly. Aging presents itself as a challenging for our immune defense… so we need to help it as much as we can.

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: What’s next? Any other research for Alzheimer’s?

Dr. Rodrigues: I am currently involved in new studies that access the association between intestinal bacteria alterations and inflammatory states that might increase amyloid protein production in the body. Amyloid is the protein that accumulates in the brain of patients with Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s Association, GA Chapter: Anything other takeaways for our readers?

Dr. Rodrigues: Please have in mind that the scientific community worldwide is united working hard to try to solve the problems that promote Alzheimer’s disease.

I lost my grandmother to Alzheimer’s disease, and I have a very close Aunt that is experiencing advanced stages of this disease right now. To all caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients, I would like to say, please stay positive, forge social bonds, take care of your life style, and let’s work together to control this challenging disease.

To learn more about how researchers like Dr. Rodrigues make an impact, visit alz.org/research

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