With fellowship, postdoc will work to solve Alzheimer’s myelin mystery

Growing up, Joel Blanchard watched his grandfather remain cognitively sharp past the age of 90 but his grandmother develop Alzheimer’s in her 70s. The difference sparked an interest in brain aging that motivates him today as a postdoc in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. As the new recipient of a 2018 Glenn Foundation for Medical Research Postdoctoral Fellowship in Aging Research, he will embark on research that could help explain why myelin, the insulation that clads the brain’s neural wiring, breaks down in Alzheimer’s disease.

“As a teenager, I wondered why these two people with shared experiences and lives had such different outcomes,” said Blanchard, whose interest in Alzheimer’s disease helped bring him to the lab of Picower Professor and Institute Director Li-Huei Tsai.

One of the main mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease – and brain aging more generally – is why myelin degenerates, Blanchard said.

“Myelin and oligodendrocytes insulate neuronal axons supporting and reinforcing neuronal networks, cognition, learning, and memory,” he said. “In aging and Alzhiemer’s disease, myelin degenerates, but it is unknown why this occurs and how it contributes to disease pathogenesis.”

With the award of $60,000 provided by the American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR) and the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, Blanchard plans to address the question by using three-dimensional cultures of brain tissue grown from human induced pluripotent stem cells.

“We have developed a 3D model of human myelination in a tissue culture dish,” Blanchard said. “This is allowing us to investigate how genetic and environmental factors associated with cognitive aging and Alzheimer’s disease influence myelinating cells and neuronal health.”

Using the cultures, he’ll be able to observe how they grow and change, and will even be able to edit their genes to see the difference that might be made by variations associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Blanchard said his goal is not only to improve understanding but also to identify new approaches to diagnosing and treating the disease.

“By investigating how and why myelin degenerates in Alzheimer’s disease we hope to identify new strategies for therapeutic intervention and biomarkers for identifying people at risk for cognitive impairments later in life,” he said.