Dr. Eitan Okun: Clarifying – and Preserving – Cognitive Function

The Mishna of Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) lays out a series of lifetime milestones, and defines our sixth decade as the point at which we should be looked up to, and honored as “elderly”. But in medical terms, some 15% of people aged sixty-plus get more than added respect. Indeed, according to a recent study, the “prevalence of dementia among community-dwelling elderly in Israel is estimated to be about 20%!”

“As we age, there’s a normal decline of cognitive function, but by age 65, about one sixth of the population exhibits the creeping dementia associated with Alzheimers – a rate that, by 85, increases to around 50%,” says Dr. Eitan Okun, a Senior Lecturer in both the Leslie and Susan Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center and the Mina and Everard Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences. “In our lab we use multi-disciplinary techniques to pursue two goals: to identify the neural mechanisms associated with mild cognitive impairment, and, at the same time, to look for signposts that would allow physicians to identify at-risk patients, so they can receive preventative treatment for dementia before it’s too late.”

Bar-Ilan alumnus Okun, 34, is an expert on neuroimmunology, learning and memory, who recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland. His strong Zionist convictions led this native of Petach Tikva to relocate together with his wife and 4 small daughters to Kibbutz Alumim, near the Gaza border. Okun says that the urgency of his research makes the long commute – an hour and a half each way – worth it.

“There is currently no cure for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and medical science can only identify such conditions behaviorally – through the symptoms that indicate that brain tissue has already been destroyed,” he explains. “Our challenge is to find the clues in molecular biology and biochemistry of the brain that would indicate there’s a problem, and would also give us possible targets for early drug intervention.”

To understand the gradual loss of cognitive function, scientists need to closely examine brain tissues – something that, for ethical reasons, cannot be studied in living human patients. To overcome this challenge, Okun turns to a mammalian model – mice that have been genetically programmed to develop neurodegeneration.

Okun does not study only neurodegeneration, however – he also examines factors that encourage the growth of new nerve cells in the mature brain. “Scientists have long known that physical exercise promotes the growth of neurons in a part of the brain involved in learning and memory,” he says. “So one of our projects involves examining how it might be possible to prevent cognitive decline by teaming up physical exercise with other types of intervention.”

Although he has been studying the brain for many years, Okun recently gained a personal perspective on the importance of neurodegeneration research. “Last year, my father was diagnosed with dementia because we noticed a decline in his motor and cognitive function,” he says. “By the time the changes became apparent, the brain tissues were already lost. It is my hope that, by gaining a fuller understanding of what happens to our brains as we age, we will be able to help more people live a fuller, more cognitively healthy life (thus fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring the elderly – our parents) – ad meah v’esrim.”