If you are here, if you are interested in ideas worth spreading, if you are curious enough, motivated enough, and spending your free time listening to TED talks, I have news for you, you are already one of us, you are a warrior. So unsheathe your weapons and stand with us because every action that we take now, will transform the fate of future generations. For people like Alex, for people like you and me.
Now, before I tell you my second story, I want to ask you a question: raise your hand if you would want to know if you have one of these genetic mutations that increases your risk for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases. Oh, that’s good! Keep in mind there’s no cure still. If you raised your hand, it’s actually quite inexpensive, only about a hundred dollars and very quick, to get tested for this genetic mutations. If you didn’t raise your hand, I guess that’s something that we each have to decide for ourselves, but I tend to think that knowledge is always good, that by knowing our genetic risk, we can change our environments and our lifestyle factors. We can contribute to organizations like the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s association. You have the power then, to reshape your own future.
Now, for my second story. This story is about one tiny little neuron inside the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. You can’t see it, it’s embedded deep inside the brain and protected by a very thick skull. And contrary to what you may have seen in the movies, on TV, or even in this animation, we don’t have any tools to be able to see this type of resolution, individual neurons in the brain. Let alone the molecules inside of these neurons. We can do a couple of things: we can take one of these neurons, stick it in the petri dish and look at it under microscope on the laboratory. It’s very cool. We can even tag different types of molecules, and we can see them move and change. But we miss everything else, we only see what we tag.
Another thing we can do is we can take these neurons, and we can look at a whole bunch of different things. For example, we can look at the concentrations of molecules inside them, the way they move, where they are located, their interactions. But we can only see it for one point in time because once we take that neuron for analysis, it’s dead, we can’t use it anymore. This is a huge limitation because the brain doesn’t look like this. The neurons are not static, they’re incredibly dynamic, moving, changing every millisecond.
Now, I know the neuron can be intimidating. So I’m not going to show you any pictures. I just want you to imagine with me for a second. I think neurons are so intimidating because they’re so tiny. Let’s imagine that this tiny little neuron that we’re talking about today, the one in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease is actually really big. Let’s say it’s the size of our city. Neuron is actually a lot like a city. Just like there are different types of people in a city that make it function, there are different types of molecules inside a neuron that make it function. Some give it energy, others transport things back and forth, kind of like a metro system or a railroad system. Others are border patrols controlling what goes in and out of the neuron. And others are neurotransmitters, they go between the neurons and that’s how your neurons communicate. Now, that’s a normal neuron.
But what happens in this particular neuron? It’s not normal, it’s inside the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, it’s being damaged. You actually all know the story already, and this is where it gets really interesting. If we go back to our city analogy, this is a city that’s under attack. Whether it’s Independence Day, or World War Z, what happens when a city is under attack? “Mayday, mayday, we have a problem, we are under attack, do you copy?” All you get from the other side is hiss-hiss. Maybe a couple of broken words here and there. Because chances are other cities are under attack too. That’s exactly what we see in our neurons. They stop communicating efficiently with each other.
What else happens in a city under attack? Widespread panic. People are running and screaming with their arms up in the air. I know you can picture it. That’s exactly what happens in our neuron. In a normal neuron, molecules are somewhat predictable, you know where they might be at a given time or what they might be doing. But when it gets damaged, it’s like they are not even the same old molecules that you used to know, they go places and do things they wouldn’t do, and the damage begets more damage.
Speaking of damage, that’s something else you see in a city under attack: piles of rubble, pieces of broken buildings, cars, dead bodies clumped together. And that’s what we see in our neuron too: we see clumps of aggregated, damaged molecules. In Parkinson’s disease, we have Lewy bodies, in Alzheimer’s disease, we have tangles and plaques. And don’t forget that in the midst of all of this crazy chaos, we are trying to figure out what’s actually killing the cell. In the movies, it’s easy, it’s a giant green monster running around — a green villain always seems to be — but in our neuron, it seems to be different. There’s no Godzilla. It seems that a variety of different factors contribute. For example, if you work with toxins like pesticides that can increase your risk for Parkinson’s disease. Your lifestyle factors: I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that exercise decreases your risk for both diseases. A Mediterranean diet decreases your risk for Alzheimer’s disease. And, of course, genetic variation, like the one that Alex and his mom have. And more, and more of these genetic variations are being discovered every day.