Rebecca MacPherson is working to learn more about why women are particularly vulnerable to contracting late-onset Alzheimer’s disease — and exploring interventions that may help.
With her 2023 Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence (CCRE) award, the Brock University Associate Professor of Health Sciences is examining whether menopause may trigger an increase in markers in the brain related to Alzheimer’s, and whether targeting a specific brain protein may reduce these markers.
MacPherson has been studying brain metabolism in health and disease for about a decade, with a large part of her work concentrating on aging and Alzheimer’s disease.
Women, she says, comprise more than 72 per cent of late-onset Alzheimer’s cases.
“Through her research, Dr. MacPherson will be closing large gaps in knowledge and understanding of why women are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Acting Vice-President, Research Michelle McGinn. “Science has long been criticized for failing to address gender differences in disease prevalence and progression, so it is particularly gratifying that we are able to recognize a researcher who is actively countering this trend.”
Much of MacPherson’s research has been focused on studying the build-up of protein pieces called beta amyloid, which clump together to form plaques in the brain. It is believed that these clumps block cell signals and may trigger inflammation, contributing to the brain damage associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
MacPherson and her team will be investigating if and how a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, could be used to treat or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. BDNF plays an important role in neuron development and other brain processes essential for learning and memory.
More generally, she and her team will study changes to the brain that occur during and after menopause, particularly the impacts of estrogen reduction, which is part of the menopause process.
To do so, the team will be using a novel animal model that allows researchers to study the progression of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. This is important because most models of Alzheimer’s disease represent early-onset Alzheimer’s, which accounts for only around five per cent of cases.
MacPherson will use this model to examine the impacts of menopause.
“Most mechanistic research examining Alzheimer’s disease pathology utilizes male models and our understanding of the role that estrogen may play in attenuating or exacerbating the pathological features of Alzheimer’s is largely unknown,” says MacPherson. “For research to be more translatable, studies must include all populations representative of the disease.”
MacPherson also plans to work with Associate Professor of Kinesiology Val Fajardo and Professor Wendy Ward to investigate how muscle and bone connect with brain health.
Recipients of the Chancellor’s Chair for Research Excellence award, open to Brock tenured and tenure-track faculty, undertake a specific three-year program of research leading to a significant development in their scholarship and deliver at least one public lecture on their research.
The CCRE award is the latest accolade for MacPherson (PhD ’14), who took up a position as an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences in 2016. Before that, she completed her PhD studies in Brock’s Faculty of Applied Health Sciences near the end of 2013 and went on to pursue a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Guelph.
She was the first recipient of Brock’s inaugural Award for Early Career Research and Creative Activity, received the 2022 Faculty of Applied Health Sciences Award for Excellence in Teaching and was also part of a team that received the Brock Chancellor’s Chair for Teaching and Excellence.
MacPherson was also awarded funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s John R. Evans Leaders Fund (JELF) to purchase specialized equipment to study the interactions between diet and exercise, and metabolism disturbances that lead to disorders like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.
Other research funding MacPherson received includes grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Scottish Rite Charitable Foundation of Canada, and the Alzheimer Society of Brant, Haldimand, Norfolk, Hamilton and Halton.
With expertise in nutrition and exercise physiology, MacPherson studies a range of metabolic diseases. In addition to late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, these include obesity, insulin resistance and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, among others.