Huntington Medical Research Institutes [HMRI] is just a few miles from San Marino, but studies conducted there are likely to have worldwide implications, if they haven’t already.
On Tuesday evening, Dr. Michael Harrington, Director of Neurosciences at HMRI, provided members of San Marino City Club with an update on his group’s forays into finding cures for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and migraine headaches, which he pronounces “me-grains” in his delightful native Scottish dialect.
“Migraines are more abundant than every other affliction added together, and we don’t know why,” Harrington told a large audience in the San Marino Center. “Thirty-five to forty million Americans suffer from them and it is now ranked as the fifth most debilitating condition in the world for females. And they are much more prevalent in females.”
A key, Harrington said, has been found in the way the human brain regulates sodium.
“The brain is constantly regulating sodium and the sodium levels fluctuate in everyone’s brain, but in the brains of migraine sufferers it fluctuates wildly,” Harrington said. “We feel we have found the model. We are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It may take a couple of years, but I think it will happen very soon.”
Harrington also pointed out the benefits of studying migraines.
“Migraines have the advantage that you can look at a person when they are sick and when they are well,” Harrington said. “Those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other conditions, the patients don’t get better and you can’t compare their symptoms. With migraines, we can draw comparisons among different control subjects and that is a big advantage.”
Alzheimer’s disease? A much more difficult challenge.
“We really need to figure out what the mechanism is for Alzheimer’s,” Harrington said, his voice taking on a tone of gloom. “The planet will be bankrupt by 2050 if we don’t figure something out.”
Harrington stated that six million Americans are currently battling Alzheimer’s.
“One of the challenges is, Alzheimer’s is not infectious, we are just living longer,” he said. “Back in the day, once the patient reached the age of 65 we called it ‘senile dementia’ and the teaching was ‘they are old people, who cares.’ That is what we said.”
It’s a much different approach these days as Harrington reported that recent research has determined a set of risk factors that can predict the likelihood of contracting the disease.
“They can be determined up to 25 years before the symptoms start,” he said. “Until recently, nobody studied the impairment.”
He advised those in attendance that there is a significant difference between normal memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
“When you can’t remember a word or if that word comes back many hours later, that is not Alzheimer’s,” Harrington stated. “This type of recall is what we know as typical aging.”
Preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is similar to protecting one’s heart, according to Harrington.
“It’s the ‘use it or lose it’ theory,” he said. “Treat the brain like you treat the heart. Running on a treadmill helps the heart and solving problems helps the brain. Cognitive exercise helps neurons keep their connections. When there is heart disease, the blood vessels are damaged and there is decreased blood flow to the brain, which is believed to cause dementia.”
HMRI is looking for subjects to conduct its non-invasive research and Harrington began his presentation by mentioning that he recognized several people in the audience, and quipped that “HIPAA regulations forbid me from mentioning you” as the room erupted in laughter.
He stated that HMRI has a large number of brains available for study and said that a simple urine test could soon determine if a patient has dementia or Alzheimer’s.
“We have found broken down oxidized lipids in urine and there is a higher level for people in a pre-symptomatic state,” Harrington said.
Harrington received his medical degree in 1976 from Glasgow University, Scotland. He trained in internal medicine and neurology, and pursued full-time research at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland and Caltech. He joined HMRI, established its Molecular Neurology Program in 1998, and has been its Director of Neurosciences since 2016.