Northwestern hosts 28th annual Alzheimer Day at the Mesulam Center


Nora Collins/The Daily Northwestern

At Northwestern’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease, Alzheimer Day attendees look on at a presentation given by Rush University Prof. Lisa Barnes.

Nora Collins, Reporter

After a hearty brunch at Beatrix in downtown Chicago, Melanie Zhang and Joseph Pyle walked to a Feinberg School of Medicine student lounge — oboe and flute in tow — and started rehearsing.

Zhang, a first-year medical student, and Pyle, a retired MD-PhD living with dementia, met earlier this year through Northwestern’s Glen and Wendy Miller Family Buddy Program, a program that pairs first-year medical students with those living with early-stage dementia for an academic year.

“We came together through a love for music,” Zhang said.

On May 5, The Buddy Program celebrated its 25th anniversary on NU’s 28th annual Alzheimer Day, which brought together more than 400 researchers, clinicians, community members, research participants and advocacy groups to share work related to Alzheimer’s disease.

The event, which took place at the Robert H. Lurie Medical Research Center, included a poster session, a quality of life symposium and a keynote by Rush University Prof. Lisa Barnes on the social and cultural influences on aging. NU’s Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease organized the event. 

Third-year neurology PhD candidate Sara Rose Dunlop presented her work at the event alongside about 50 other presentations related to aging and Alzheimer’s-related dementia.

“Participating in events like this grounds my work and brings it full circle to what drew me to neuroscience in the first place,” Dunlop said.

Dunlop said while her work is “very molecular, in the lab and at the bench,” she keeps her work centered around trying to help find cures and therapeutics for Alzheimer’s and related dementia.

Jelena Pejic, a research coordinator of clinical trials at the Mesulam Center, said she is excited to be a part of trials studying anti-amyloid, an anti-brain plaque forming protein, and is hopeful for the future.

“Advances in memory-related research are critical because right now we don’t have any cure or preventative drugs to help with Alzheimer’s disease,” Pejic said.

The poster session, which happened before Prof. Lisa Barnes’ address, also gave community care organizations time to connect with families affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

Lorenzo’s House, founded by Diana Shulla Cose, supports families who navigate early-onset Alzheimer’s — especially children who have parents living with the diagnosis — and brings them together to build community and hope. 

Many people feel a sense of relief from connecting with other families who share the same experience, Cose said.

“We are an unseen group. We are an unseen, misdiagnosed, undiagnosed, under-resourced niche in the larger Alzheimer’s community. And there are a lot of us,” Cose said.

Connections, from care organizations to individuals and from hospital to patient, are critical, said Sydney Orr, a research study assistant at the Mesulam Center. 

Orr said her work involves informed consent and clinical trial recruitment, along with giving patients the information they need to make a decision.

“We have many services that we offer at the Mesulam Center, in terms of caregiver or participant support, because it’s not easy,” Orr said.

Shreya Kanchan, a Feinberg research coordinator, said she was glad to see research participants attend the conference. Her work involves helping people who have Primary Progressive Aphasia recover their language skills, as it is a syndrome that affects communication and can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s important for other participants to come and see all the posters, and also to just see in real time how much of an impact their participation has — how much of a difference it really makes,” Kanchan said.

The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Feinberg was founded 26 years ago. In the last academic year, it was awarded a sixth cycle of funding and received a $20 million grant for its SuperAging research program, which studies individuals ages 80 and older who have remarkable memory performances.

Zhang and Pyle closed the conference by performing five pieces, including a polka piece that had attendees clapping and tapping their fingers on the Hughes Auditorium desks.

“That’s the power of music to bring people together,” Zhang said. “This program has really helped me put all of my work in context and given it meaning.”

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