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Is an exercise-related hormone the new frontier in Alzheimer's treatment?

Last week, our winter term got off to a fabulous start with some great news out of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Dr. Fernanda De Felice, an Associate Professor in the Centre for Neuroscience Studies,  co-authored a paper with collaborators at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro that appeared in Nature Medicine, a prestigious journal of medical research.  

Dr. De Felice’s publication shows that irisin, a hormone that is released by exercise, could help protect the brain against Alzheimer’s disease. Speaking with the Queen’s Gazette, she says:

"In the past few years, researchers from many places around the world have shown that exercise is an effective tool to prevent different forms of dementia such as Alzheimer’s. This has led to an intense search for specific molecules that are responsible for the protective actions of exercise in the brain. Because irisin seems to be powerful in rescuing disrupted synapses that allow communication between brain cells and memory formation, it may become a medication to fight memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease."

Realizing the potentially huge impact that Dr. De Felice’s findings could have, media outlets have widely circulated the study. In the UK alone, for example, everyone from The Daily Mail to the NHS to the BBC (at the 2:49 mark in the segment) is talking about this potentially ground-breaking study. In the U.S., The New York Times has covered the study. In Kingston, Global News has produced a story on the research.

Dr. Fernanda De Felice
Dr. Fernanda De Felice

As with all studies, it will still take some time to realize the full ramifications of the findings. The study has generated so much interest already, though, because it has the potential to improve the conditions of millions of people affected by Alzheimer’s.  

If future studies support the case that irisin can protect against or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, these findings could lead to novel and impactful treatments. Researchers may even be able to develop medications that could increase irisin levels in the brain without exercise. As the majority of people suffering from Alzheimer’s are elderly and therefore more at risk of having conditions (such as arthritis and heart disease) that make exercising difficult, a drug that increases irisin could be crucial to treating patients with the disease.

I’m sure that I’m not alone in eagerly anticipating more findings from Dr. De Felice and her team. In the meantime, though, I want to congratulate everyone involved in this study and thank them for their hard work and dedication to research.

This also seems like a good opportunity to point out the excellent work that is coming out of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies more broadly. Last month on this blog, I had the chance to share some information about the highly impactful research program of Dr. Stephen Scott, another member of the centre. Without a doubt, Dr. Scott and Dr. De Felice are representative of the terrific team of researchers at Queen’s who are reshaping what we know about many aspects of the brain.

As we move forward in the winter term, I look forward to sharing more success stories from across the faculty with you.


Thank you to Andrew Willson and the Queen's Gazette for their assistance in preparing this blog. 

Cover photo by Rawpixel/Unsplash

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