Budding researcher’s passion finds Alzheimer’s risk starts as early as childhood along with possible seeds for a cure

As far back as day care “arts and crafts,” Daniel Felsky was making cubes with pictures on the sides showing him as a scientist curing disease. He would beg his pre-school teachers for egg cartons as stand-in beakers and test tubes.

During high school this 24-year-old may have toyed with becoming a rock or comedy improvisation star, but he always returned to his true love; science, specifically genetics, which one teacher taught a gifted few there.

“Genetics is like a symphony, an interactional, all-encompassing network within a cell,” he says. “Genes don’t act on their own, they’re intrinsically wired to interact with their neighbors. Knowing how those codes in those cells work together unlocks secrets to so many puzzles, including Alzheimer’s.”

Now Felsky’s obsession has brought hope for new understanding and, perhaps, potential treatments or prevention through genetics. Felsky has received a three-year Alzheimer Society Research Program (ASRP) Doctoral Award, through his PHD studies at the University of Toronto and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), to probe the genetic underpinnings of early risks for the disease. Felsky was lead on a ground-breaking study published last year using neural imaging and genetics to look at healthy populations’ brains over their lifespan across all ages. Felsky says his study used data from other sources, too, reflecting the “collaboration and cooperation” among modern researchers.

The team used medical imaging to measure how water moves along parts of white brain matter and found genetic mechanisms exist with relation to protein structures and their function as early as infancy, childhood and adolescence that may put people at risk.

“It’s not just knowing what genes put someone at risk, but we have information to help us deconstruct the disease progression at various points,” he says. “This helped us identify the where, the when and the how of mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s risk genes and their effect on the brain in seemingly healthy people, from very early on.”

Specifically Felsky, crediting mentor Aristotle Voineskos, studied the SORL1 gene, assessing risk factors for effects on brain structures and functions. The research suggested people may get a risk for Alzheimer's disease from an “early hit” (an early-life brain change linked to a variation in their genes) during childhood or adolescence, long before symptoms develop. This identified how genetics influences specific brain mechanisms. It may shed light on how environment or lifestyle affects people who are genetically at-risk for Alzheimer’s disease. This could mean more potential for future early intervention toward treatment. For some, the research has also helped dispel the myth of Alzheimer’s as an “old person’s disease.”

Thanks to this dynamic young man, who spends his time biking and in triathlons when outside the lab, we better understand how early the risks can start and how they may act on the genetics behind the development of Alzheimer’s disease. This may someday bode well for potentially identifying, treating or helping prevent the disease even before symptoms appear. The future is looking brighter.

For 25 years, the Alzheimer Society Research Program (ASRP) has been funding peer-reviewed Canadian research aimed at improving prevention, diagnosis and treatment, as well as finding a cure. To date, over $40 million has been invested in the work of researchers like Daniel Felsky.

Learn more about the ASRP and other recipients’ work.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and how to reduce your risk.

Last Updated: 11/08/2017