NOMIS board member Christian Haass and three other neuroscientists — Bart De Strooper, Michel Goedert and John Hardy — are the recipients of the 2018 Brain Prize for their groundbreaking research on the genetic and molecular basis of Alzheimer’s disease. The research pioneered by these four European scientists has revolutionized our understanding of the changes in the brain that lead to Alzheimer’s disease and related types of dementia.
When Haass, professor at Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich and at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, started to work on Alzheimer’s disease in 1990, very little was known about the cellular mechanisms involved in this disease. He focused on the generation and metabolism of amyloid, the major component of the disease that signifies plaques. Haass hypothesized that amyloid production may be normal and not necessarily part of a pathological process, which at the time was the widely accepted general opinion in the field. This pivotal finding was highly significant and has since led to the development of therapies to lower amyloid production in patients. Working with Hardy, Haass has demonstrated how amyloid is generated and how genetic mutations seen in families with very aggressive and rare forms of Alzheimer’s affect its production.
Most recently, Haass has generated mouse models to investigate inflammation in neurodegenerative disorders, which according to his findings may at least initially play a protective role. He found that genetic mutations alter the function of special immune cells called microglia in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. This has stimulated a completely new approach to designing possible new therapies by modulating the activity of microglia.
The Brain Prize, awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark, is worth one million euros. Awarded annually, it recognizes one or more international scientists who have distinguished themselves by an outstanding contribution to neuroscience.