Anne Maass: Exploring Dementia
Anne Maass has investigated brain structures in a number of experiments and tested the influence of physical training on the memory. She has received the 2015 EMPIRIS Award for her work.
Simon Staufer: Ms. Maass, you have just been honored for your work in dementia research. What exactly did you investigate?
Anne Maass: Together with other researchers, I investigated brain regions that are important for dementia research using modern technology and in a number of people. My research project is called "Exploring dementia with high-resolution imaging" – as the name suggests, the high resolution enables us to go into detail and investigate sub-regions of the brain more closely than was possible until recently. In the process, we focused on the region known as the hippocampus. This is a kind of control center – all new sensory impressions and information are channeled there before returning to the cortex, the outer layer of the brain, for long-term storage.
What is the link to dementia diseases?
Well, with Alzheimer's there is a link between the loss of cognitive abilities and the accumulation of proteins in the brain and the subsequent death of nerve cells. The assumption is that these deposits trigger the disease. The deposits first affect the entorhinal cortex, which is a kind of entry point to the hippocampus – and then the hippocampus itself. What we did for the first time was to measure the flow of information in this brain region in detail, and how this affects memory formation. Although the subjects we investigated were healthy, the results provide important information about functions that play a key role for dementia research.
You conducted various experiments. Can you describe them for us?
We did a total of three experiments, two of them with young participants. In one, we tested recognition of certain scenes that we presented to them; in the other, we closely observed the entorhinal cortex, which plays an important role in information processing in the brain – a kind of "gateway" to the human memory. Finally, in a third experiment with older participants, we compared how they performed in memory tests in connection with physical training.
How did you go about this?
Over three months, we investigated two groups of healthy, older people who basically do not undertake any sporting activity in their leisure time. One of the groups then started regular physical training, and the control group did relaxation exercises. After three months, we analyzed the blood flow in the brain, and what structural changes could be observed – focusing on the hippocampus. We also conducted memory tests. The result was as follows: The training had a positive impact on the volume of the hippocampus and on blood flow in the brain. This in turn had a positive influence on the subjects' memory performance. However, the results could be observed primarily in the participants who were a little younger. In the case of the older ones, the training did not raise blood flow.
In this context, do you see a possibility that drugs could soon be developed to cure Alzheimer's and other dementia diseases – or should the focus be on prevention?
Basically, there is no indication unfortunately that dementia – whether Alzheimer's or other forms – will be curable in the short or medium term. The accumulation of proteins and subsequent degeneration of the brain generally start years before those affected become clinically ill, and once it has reached that stage it can no longer be reversed. But I'm more optimistic about prevention: There are already lots of indications of factors that could prevent dementia, including physical and mental training. The better we understand the relationships between the deposits in the brain, the clinical picture, and external factors, the better the chances of finding effective prevention measures. Our studies have made a contribution to this.
You have been presented with the 2015 EMPIRIS Award for this contribution (see box). What role does such an award play for you?
First of all, I am very pleased about such recognition of course; it means a lot to me. In addition, prizes and awards for young researchers like me are important when looking for a job, research funds, and scholarships. I am currently working in San Francisco on a fixed-term contract. I really like the place and the atmosphere here, and just recently I was accepted for a research scholarship that enables me to stay for two years. After that, however, I would like to take the next step and develop further in Alzheimer's research, perhaps in Magdeburg, Germany, where I did my PhD. To be recognized for my work at this stage is, of course, a great help and motivation.