By Eric Barton and Alexandra Pecharich
As a young assistant professor in the early 1980s at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, Tomás Guilarte would often visit an affiliated clinic to observe children undergoing therapy to chemically remove lead from their bodies.
Many were from poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, and their exposure stemmed from lead-based paint crumbling off the walls in their homes. The dwellings of the identified children were being remediated, but for the youngsters the damage was already done: diminished memory and other cognitive problems that contributed to poor performance in school. (Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978.)
Some years later, a national clinical study confirmed that the type of therapy the children had received, called chelation, successfully reduced the toxin levels in their bodies. Unfortunately, the study also reported that it did nothing to reverse learning deficits or improve school performance. The latter convinced Guilarte that new approaches were needed to help lead-poisoned children.
Guilarte went on to perform research in which he identified the molecular and cellular basis of the lead-induced impairment the children had experienced. His laboratory would be among the first to describe lead as an inhibitor of a critical brain receptor involved in learning and memory.
His work then pivoted to looking for ways to overcome the problems faced by youngsters exposed to lead at the height of their brain development. It revolved around a gene responsible for making a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. He investigated how to boost production of that protein using laboratory rats that his team exposed to lead and whose learning deficits mimicked those of the affected youngsters.
“What we found is that in the animals that received enrichment, BDNF gene expression increased,” Guilarte says. “Enrichment” in this case was a high-quality environment, he explains. Whereas the control subjects lived in standard cages with only their basic needs met, the test group lived in larger, multiple-story cages with running wheels and toys that were changed out regularly to provide novel stimulation. (Translated into human terms, “enrichment” for affected children could mean everything from tutoring and after-school programs to the addition of computers in the home.)
As the study progressed, the results exceeded expectations. “We showed the learning deficits were reversed,” Guilarte says of the progress made by subjects in the test group. He soon came to recognize something the scientific community had largely failed to consider. While many recognized that environment could negatively impact neurological health, few seemed to understand that positive changes in physical surroundings could potentially improve the cognitive condition of sufferers. While today such a statement might seem almost intuitive, the realization back then prompted new lines of study, among them groundbreaking work by Guilarte himself.
The seasoned researcher joined FIU in 2016 as dean of the Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work and quickly set about creating the Brain Behavior & the Environment (BBE) program, a research and educational center that looks at how environmental factors impact brain health.
The BBE is an emerging pre-eminent program at FIU and it is the direct result of the vision of FIU leadership to enhance science, research and education throughout the university. Since the program’s inception, Guilarte and his team of experts—all of them lured to FIU by the promise of this unique endeavor—have more than $17 million in grant funding, primarily from the National Institutes of Health.
Such substantial financial support drives home the growing need to examine both the causes as well as possible preventive and curative therapies for neurodegenerative disorders: An estimated 44 million people worldwide currently suffer from Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia; an estimated 7 million to 10 million have Parkinson’s disease.