Behind the Ellison Medical Foundation's Creative Approaches to Nervous System Aging

As of November 2013, the Ellison Medical Foundation is no longer pursuing biomedical grantmaking. Please read our article about the foundation's sudden announcement here.

Once upon a time, it was believed that nervous system growth and repair ceased after early childhood. Once you'd generated your genetically allotted quota of neurons, you were done. Now we know this isn't the way things work, at all. The Ellison Medical Foundation is seeking to capitalize on the new knowledge. (See Ellison Medical Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.)

Turns out, the body is able to generate and regenerate brain cells, and even rework and repair its own wiring, well into mature adulthood. It is always seeking to make itself better, faster, and more efficient and to replenish itself from minor injuries and from aging — at least to a point. Why the brain won't make the leap and jump in to prevent the massive neural losses associated with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, or rewire itself around a damaged spinal cord, is completely unclear.

With characteristic optimism, creativity, and a clear penchant for somewhat out-there, risky proposals, the Ellison Medical Foundation is throwing its financial muscle into finding answers to this puzzle. (Read Ellison Medical Foundation Executive Director Kevin Lee's IP profile.) Recent awards related to Nervous System Aging include "Genes and Pathways that Modulate Neural Declines with Age," by Dr. Nancy Bonini, which proposes using the fruit fly (Drosophila spp.) to model age-related neurological decline in humans; and "Division-coupled Differentiation of Stem Cells Driving Age-related Decline in Neurogenesis," by Dr. Grigori Enikolopov, which addresses how the brain responds to its diminishing available stem cells as it ages. "Our work should provide important information on why older individuals are so vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases," says Dr. Mel B. Feany, recipient of the 2006 Senior Scholar Award in Aging. "And we'll try to define the therapeutic targets that are most important for older patient populations."

Despite the brain's burgeoning complexity, the Ellison Medical Foundation sees cause for hope. "The brain was once a black box we were trying to influence with magic," states the foundation on its page on nervous system aging. "Now, a few viewing ports have been opened where scientists are taking a peek."