Q AND A WITH ITAMAR KAHN
Technion Associate Professor Itamar Kahn of the Allen and Jewel Prince Center in the Rappaport Faculty of Medicine investigates brain function and behavior in health and disease. His work has applications for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Q. As September is Healthy Aging Month, and millions of baby boomers are turning 70, aging well is a message that will be resonating stronger than ever. Can you tell us about the aging process and what we can do to stay healthier, longer?
A. We think that aging is something that is far away, but it’s really not. The aging process starts at the fourth decade of our lives. When we are born and grow, our brain is developing. We reach our maximum when we are in our twenties, and then we are at a plateau for the next decade or so. In our 30s, our brains start to show signs of decline. But there’s something very optimistic about that. It means that we spend the majority of our life dealing with aging. And it means that a lot of the things that we do now—watching our diet, working out and staying mentally active—are things that can help us when we’re 60,70 and 80. It’s never too late.
As scientists we aim to increase how healthy we are as we age, that is our healthspan, rather than just extend lifespan. We believe that this approach will allow us to be as healthy as possible during our time on this earth.
Q. How are you focusing on healthy aging in your research?
A. We’re trying to develop diagnostic imaging tools that will identify brain disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease early on, methods that will allow us to look at a person’s brain and tell whether the brain is aging normally or if there is something wrong—even a decade before that individual experiences symptoms. Early diagnosis is critical to allow prevention or at the least slow down the destructive processes. We hope to develop sensitive diagnostic tests using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that will allow such early diagnosis. That’s where my lab hopes to make a dent.
Q. So are you also developing new treatments?
A. We are just starting to collaborate with other scientists, helping them test novel treatments that they are developing. We have both a human MRI and an animal MRI that allows us to develop new tools. We can engineer the brains of mice to mimic conditions that exist in humans, study the early stages of the disease, equivalent to the stages when individuals show very faint symptoms that might be related to normal aging rather than a progressive neurodegenerative condition. We can look for markers to see if something is going on, and then try new drugs in the animals. If the MRI shows that the drugs are helping the mice, maybe it will work in humans.
It’s also thought that many of the conditions associated with aging—diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases— are actually interconnected. This means that anything that will help ward off one of these conditions (such as Lipitor associated with fighting heart disease) is going to be protective as we age. These drugs may increase one’s healthspan, maximizing the period of our life when we are healthy.
Q. Many readers are thinking, “why can’t I remember the name of the movie I saw last night? Do I have early onset Alzheimer’s?”
A. Forgetfulness is normal and it would not necessarily indicate that a neurodegenerative disorder is taking place. One of the features of such conditions is that they are progressive. Namely, that things get worse and usually at a more rapid pace than what would be normal for that age. If you feel that way, it is time to consult your physician. But remember or ask a loved one to remind you, we all become more forgetful. That’s part of aging.