Q&A: CMU professor discusses research during Alzheimer's awareness month


Neuroscience professor Yannick Marchalant poses in HP 2306 on Nov. 30.

November is Alzheimer's Awareness Month. While some only think about the disease once a year, others have dedicated their lives to studying it. 

Yannick Marchalant, interim director of the neuroscience program, is one of those people. Born, raised and educated in France, Marchalant has found his way through several institutions studying the causes and progression of Alzheimer's disease since 1998.

He currently holds a position as associate professor for psychology and neuroscience at Central Michigan University teaching both undergraduate and graduate level courses. Additionally, he runs the neuroinflammation, aging and Alzheimer's disease lab studying this common form of dementia.

A loss of cognitive ability typically characterizes Alzheimer's disease and usually occurs in older individuals. Unfortunately, the disease can cause the loss of memories, living abilities and knowledge of loved ones.

Central Michigan Life spoke with Marchalant about his research with Alzheimer's disease and what the future might look like for care.

CM Life: What initially got you interested in studying Alzheimer's disease?

Marchalant: I did a couple of rotations in different labs, and the one I ended up working on was one regarding the hypothesis surrounding Alzheimer's disease and the damage it does to blood flow. (Then) I found a postdoc at the University of Arizona in Tucson. And that's where I changed a little bit. I mean, we're still working on Alzheimer's disease, but looking at another aspect that was newer at the time, which was the neuroinflammation field. 

What are the main topics that you focus on in your research?

We've been juggling through two different things. I'm interested in aging in general and the aspects of pathology. The Alzheimer's disease aspect is always what has been driving me initially. So we jump back and forth between normal aging and Alzheimer's disease. And we have projects that study how the brain copes with normal aging. 

We look at normal aging. One of the aspects that we've done since I joined CMU in 2014, is working with a graduate student looking at diet's effect on cognition. We looked at, if, let's say, you're an elderly person, and you eat poorly, can you actually even intervene on your poor diet to make it slightly better to keep cognition going. So, we looked at krill oil in this concept, trying to get more positive nutrients in the food.

And then the other side, we worked on a lot of preclinical models of Alzheimer's disease in mice. The idea was to look at different aspects of inflammation. The question has been lingering for years, actually, a couple of decades now. Does inflammation matter to disease progression? Is it a factor that actually precipitates the disease? Or is it something that could be stimulated to save patients from having progression of dementia. So, in the lab, we've been trying to work around the idea of targeting your inflammation, especially early on before symptoms.

What made you want to come to the United States?

That was the best opportunity. I mean as a postdoc, especially in Europe, you get fewer opportunities to move around. Usually, when people get a job after this, you tend to stay in the same place or close to the same region. So, postdocs are a good opportunity to see the world. I signed up for a year (in the United States), I ended up staying for seven, then moved back to France for a few years. Then, I didn't find my share over there so I came back. 

It's not just where you end up, it is the overall environment. I had a family at the time and (Mount Pleasant) is not a bad choice for raising a family. 

What do you think is going to be the next big breakthrough in Alzheimer's research?

My hope is that we find one of those really dedicated molecules or one protein, that does the trick. Or, do the trick enough that patients do not end up in that very, very difficult stage for their family at the end where cognition is lost, but their bodies still functioning, and they need 100% attention from everyone, without knowing what they're doing. I mean, they lose their memory. That's the most precious thing in your life – that's what makes you who you are. And that's what you use. If we can maintain that as long as possible in patients that are physically okay, then that's a win. 

I really hope I'm put out of a job very soon. If I don't have to study Alzheimer's anymore, I'm cool with it.

Realistically, how close are we to that point?

We've known about this disease since 1906. Are we close to making that breakthrough? We know way more from the start. We know how the disease evolved in some aspects and we're able to detect it a little bit earlier. I mean, are we 10 years, 20 years from there? That's really hard to predict. 

If you had unlimited resources, what would you do with them?

Tomorrow's issue is not finding a cure – what you need to take care of is that families that are hurting right now financially, morally and psychologically. You need to help them out. And that's a good investment of money. Because, again, people that are traumatized from this might go into depression. But if you understand the process, you prepare for it. It's probably a more peaceful transition.

If there is one thing you would want people to understand about Alzheimer's disease, what would that be?

One thing – start thinking about your health right now. If you do this, you're probably going to alleviate a lot of the aging process, which means potentially Alzheimer's. Be slightly more active, eat less, eat better when you can – you don't have to be taking out everything from your plates. You can still eat but be mindful of the quantities and what you put on there. 

It's not easy, but that would be my first recommendation.