The brain, with its 100 billion neurons, is the most complicated thing in the universe.
Well, according to the brain, anyway.
This complexity, unfortunately, grows once the brain starts to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Itamar Kahn, an Israeli brain researcher, thinks he and his team are on track to figuring out something big — no, not curing these disorders, but something that’s perhaps even better: identifying them years before their effects are visibly noticed.
Kahn, who recently met with various researchers in the Bay Area on a U.S. tour sponsored by the American Technion Society, is well suited for such a task. He’s an associate professor of neuroscience and the director of the Prince Center for Neurodegenerative Disorders of the Brain at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
The Prince Center’s team of 12 investigators is up against many diseases that have been puzzling researchers for decades. There’s a reason: Unlike other ailments, neurodegenerative diseases can progress undetected for years within the brain. Even an MRI exam won’t catch them.
“By the time you’ve noticed something, it’s already at a very advanced stage,” said Kahn, who was a visiting scholar at Stanford University 15 years ago while completing his Ph.D. at MIT. He lived in San Francisco at the time.
According to the Harvard University NeuroDiscovery Center, Alzheimer’s affects 5 million Americans, while Parkison’s and Huntington’s affect more than 1 million.
Kahn said researchers’ lack of progress has, in turn, led pharmaceutical companies to take fewer risks in trying to find treatments. In June, for example, it was revealed that, in 2015, Pfizer opted against conducting an estimated $80 million clinical trial on a drug that may have helped reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Kahn said he believes that decision was made, in part, because of Pfizer’s skepticism about new treatments for neurodegenerative disorders (although others believe the almighty dollar sign was the reason behind the decision).
There have been other setbacks, as well. Axovant Sciences, for example, announced in 2018 that an experimental drug had failed to produce results for Alzheimer’s. One day later, the Journal of the American Medical Association said a different experimental drug for the same disorder didn’t work.
But Kahn tries to look on the bright side.
“I was excited to learn about the deep commitment individuals have to supporting medical research,” he told J., referring to his tour in the U.S. “It shows that we all understand that for progress to be achieved, it will require a sustained effort.”
Nothing that we do provides immediate results. You’re not going to get a lot of these big wow moments.
There are fluctuations in the health of brain cells, he explained, and if researchers are able to develop a test that can ascertain if cells are struggling, they can identify a neurological disease much earlier than previously possible. In turn, this could help accelerate the development of potential medications.
Kahn said his pursuit of brain research isn’t because he has relatives afflicted with these diseases. He doesn’t. Rather, he is simply passionate about the research and about achieving a victory, no matter how long it takes.
Kahn said he considered going to medical school and becoming a physician — helping a patient deal with a particular ailment would lead to more “immediate gratification,” he admitted — but he eventually chose research after seeing the day-to-day workings of both.
“A researcher always has a delayed gratification outcome,” Kahn said. “Nothing that we do provides immediate results. You’re not going to get a lot of these big wow moments.”
Kahn said the pace of his work matches other parts of his personality. “I like to run for long distances,” he said with a smile.
Kahn was born on Kibbutz Lehavot HaBashan in the Hula Valley of northern Israel, about six miles from Kiryat Shmona. He remembers that there were very strict regulations on how to raise children there. Mothers would see their kids only for a few hours a day, he said, so when he was 2, his family moved to Rehovot, about 13 miles south of Tel Aviv. He did his undergraduate work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, graduating in 1997.
In 2005, after completing his visiting scholar post at Stanford and his Ph.D. at MIT, Kahn joined Harvard as a postdoctoral associate for four years, returning to Israel in 2010 to start at Technion.
Someday he hopes to announce the breakthrough he and his team are working toward.
“These problems are so fundamental,” Kahn said. “To deal with them, we need a better solution.”