Central Michigan University neuroscientist Kenneth Jenrow is looking for a master key to unlock functional decline in the human brain.
And down the road, his research could contribute to therapies for the likes of aging-related cognitive impairment, traumatic brain injury, hydrocephalus, Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy.
Many neuroscientists at CMU and other universities focus on neurodegenerative diseases, but Jenrow and graduate student assistant Swathi Suresh focus specifically on the connection between brain inflammation — common to aging and virtually all brain diseases and damage — and the clearing of waste products from the brain.
When the outflow of these waste materials slows down, it slowly impairs brain function and can cause permanent brain damage.
Jenrow wants to know more about the part inflammation plays in this process and its impact on brain function.
A reaction to 9/11
Jenrow's approach evolved from a federally funded project after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. No nukes were involved on 9/11, but there was a concern that future attacks could involve conventional nuclear weapons or a so-called dirty bomb.
"The idea was to explicitly identify drugs that could be administered to mitigate radiation injury and prevent what might otherwise be an accelerated cognitive decline, leading to dementia and death," Jenrow said. "Anti-inflammatory drugs proved most effective in this context."
Patients whose brains have been irradiated for clinical reasons, such as cancer treatment, offer some insights.
"These people commonly develop cognitive impairment up to and including dementia," Jenrow said. "However, you typically see no evidence until more than six months after irradiation.
"There's absolutely nothing you can do about it at that stage," but the delayed effects offer clues about the mechanisms involved and possible therapies, he said.
If Jenrow can develop methods for keeping this damage from piling up in the brain — perhaps through medicines or even lifestyle changes — he thinks mental impairment could be halted or even reversed.
"The challenge has driven me for a number of years," he said.
Part of a larger effort
Just as Suresh assists with Jenrow's research, about 20 graduate students work with the 16 faculty members in CMU's neuroscience program.
Gary Dunbar built and runs the program, which also serves about 350 undergraduate students. He said some 150 of those undergrads have opportunities to do hands-on research.
Several neuroscience faculty in addition to Jenrow study aspects of brain disease and damage, including College of Medicine faculty member Ute Hochgeschwender, who uses light to control and repair damaged cells in the brain, and Yannick Marchalant, whose research focuses on normal and pathological brain aging.
In 2013, the undergraduate program was voted Program of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, the largest group of its kind in the world.