They both compete in triathlons. They live three blocks from each other in Poquott and work at Stony Brook University. And thanks to a chance meeting in a park near their home, they have worked together to gather information about a medical problem that is likely to become more common as the baby boomer generation ages: Alzheimer’s disease.
A professor in the departments of neurosurgery and medicine at Stony Brook Medical School, William Van Nostrand created a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. Realizing, however, that he needed someone with an expertise in behavior, he turned to his longtime collaborator John Robinson, a professor in integrative neuroscience in the psychology department at Stony Brook.
Recently, the physically fit tandem showed how the collection of a protein called amyloid beta around small capillaries in their model of Alzheimer’s results in signs of the disease, even before the typical collection of amyloid plaques in the brain resulted in the cognitive decline associated with the disease.
The study shows, Van Nostrand said, that a small amount of amyloid buildup in the blood vessels is “very potent at driving impairment.” That could be a result of inflammation or inflammatory pathways or changes in the blood flow, he speculated.
While scientists and doctors had known about the build up of amyloid proteins in the vessels and in plaques, they hadn’t compared the changes in the affected region in a side-by-side way while monitoring a deterioration in behavior.
Van Nostrand was cautious about extending the results of this study to humans. He suggested that this result might be “an earlier indicator” or even a “potential contributor” to the disease and impairment later on.
“A lot more work needs to be done in looking at how this translates into humans,” Van Nostrand said.
Additionally, the amyloid accumulation is not the whole story, as defects in tau proteins, which are responsible for stabilizing polymers that contribute to maintaining cell structure, also play a role in Alzheimer’s symptoms. Most recent work, Van Nostrand explained, suggests that amyloid is likely an important initiator of other problems.
A complex disease, Alzheimer’s can vary from patient to patient. Indeed, there are people who show no signs of any deterioration in their intellectual abilities who have “lots of pathology, but they haven’t hit that tipping point yet,” where the disease progresses from the physical stage to mental impairment, Van Nostrand said.
As for what’s next for the productive collaboration, Robinson suggested they are interested in how lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise and lifelong learning, help or hurt the chances of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The two scientist/athletes recognize, Robinson said, that their own athletic pursuits may help their health over the longer term, although the connection with Alzheimer’s or any other disease is difficult to make.
“If you ask Bill and me, ‘Do you think we’ll live longer because of this?’ We’d both say, yes. That’s a bias we recognize,” Robinson said. Robinson said he has collaborated with many researchers since he started working at Stony Brook in 1994 and called the connection with Van Nostrand one of his longest standing scientific partnerships.
As for their athletic training, the duo have traveled together to triathlons in Montauk and in New Jersey. Van Nostrand often competes in longer races (like Ironman competitions).
The two sometimes compete in the same triathlon, where Robinson sees his colleague’s feet amid the churned bubbles at the beginning of a race, while Van Nostrand listens over his shoulder for Robinson during the run.
While Van Nostrand has had a successful collaboration with Robinson, he has another collaboration even closer to home. His wife, Judianne Davis, who has been working with him for over 20 years, is his lab manager.
A swimmer, Davis has an interest in her family that is unique: she enters sheepherding competitions with her border collie. Van Nostrand has two sons from a previous marriage (26-year-old Joffrey and 21-year-old Kellen). The couple has an eight-year-old daughter, Waela, who is also a swimmer.
Robinson met his wife, Alice Cialella, a group leader of the Scientific Information Systems Group at Brookhaven National Laboratory, on a college track team and the couple still trains together. The Poquott pair have a 16-year-old daughter Zoe, who, naturally, runs cross country and track at Ward Melville High School.
One of Davis’ dogs helped facilitate a meeting between the two researchers. Davis was walking her dog in a park near their homes when she met Robinson.
It’s a “strong collaboration,” Van Nostrand said, and has “worked out really well.”