This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Prof Gary Wenk. In his own words:
“Gary L. Wenk, a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, is a leading authority on the consequences of chronic brain inflammation and animal models of Alzheimer’s disease. He is also a member of the OSU Center for Brain and Spinal Cord Repair. He received a B.A. degree in psychology and biology from Albion College and a Ph.D. in Neurotoxicology from the University of Cincinnati. He then trained as a post-doctoral fellow in the laboratory of Drs. Peter Davies and Robert Terry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He joined the faculty of the Departments of Psychology and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins University for nine years and served as a Program Director for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory & Biological Basis of Behavior Program, Division of Behavioral and Neural Sciences, at the National Science Foundation. He joined the faculty of the University of Arizona and was a research scientist in the Division of Neural Systems, Memory & Aging for 15 years. Professor Wenk has had continuous RO1-level support from the National Institutes of Health since 1984 and has served as chairperson of three different NIH study sections since 1997.
Dr. Wenk is the recipient of the Vernon & Virginia Furrow Excellence in Teaching Award, The Five Star Faculty Teaching Award, The Distinguished Teaching Award from Ohio State University, The Joan N Huber Award for Outstanding Scholarship and The Harlan Hatcher Arts and Sciences Distinguished Faculty Award. Professor Wenk’s research is focused upon the investigation of drugs that can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and rescue the brain from the consequences of normal and pathological aging. He has been interviewed about his work by many magazines and radio stations, including NPR, WBZ, WJR, CBS News, & WABC, numerous local and national television programs, including CNN and The Dr Oz show; he was interviewed by Lucasfilm, Ltd. and Amanada Productions for a 2-hr TV documentary on the topic of cognitive enhancers.
Professor Wenk was elected in 2008 to the rank of Fellow at the American Assosciation for the Advancement of Science for distinguished contributions in the field of neuropharmacology, neurodegenerative diseases and neuroinflammatory processes. This rank was first given in 1874 to members of AAAS whose “efforts on behalf of the advancement of science or its applications are scientifically or socially distinguished.””
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Jonathan: Hey everybody, Jonathan Bailor back with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim show and we have a brilliant professor with us today, actually back with us today. I so enjoyed our first conversation that we had to have him back. He is over at the amazing – I say that because I am from Columbus, Ohio – Ohio State University is a great university and he is a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience and Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics. He is about as hardcore as you get when it comes to being a researcher as known as the actual experts and the people that we do not hear enough from and we have none other than Professor Gary L. Wenk with us today. Gary, welcome brother.
Gary: Wow, Jonathan, I have never had such an introduction. I feel like I need a cheerleader behind me from the team.
Jonathan: They are busy because the Buckeyes are on a rampage right now.
Gary: They are fantastic, we are proud of them.
Jonathan: Gary, I wanted to bring you back on the show because last time we had just a wonderful provocative conversation about your research and the impacts on the brain and then we said well wait until you hear about exercise and what the implications that your research has or suggestions it has on exercise. Introduce us first to the listeners that didn’t hear the first show, your general research areas and let’s get into exercise.
Gary: All right, first of all I study animal models of Alzheimer’s disease, but more generally, I am trying to figure out what it means for the brain to age and how we can slow that down and you will notice that I am not trying to prevent aging. No one believes that that’s possible, not yet, but for many, many years I have tested a lot of compounds, herbals, experimental drugs from companies and essentially as everyone knows none of these things work because if they work, they would be out there for sale and people would be amazingly smart when they are older. My research today is turning towards learning from the epidemiology. We have gotten information from elderly people who are very smart, very sharp, and we all know those people and so we have asked them, “You are 90 years old and you are very sharp and smart. Why? What did you do differently?”
We are learning from those people that they did some things that surprised us, simple things, and we are trying to take that information in the laboratory, explain the benefits of why is drinking coffee is so good, why is exercising so good, why are certain herbals working and there are certain diets working and others are not. It’s almost as though we’ve got all these little people out there who are a proof of concept for us and my research in the past 10 years or so has been simply going to that well of knowledge and trying to find a way to make it work in animal models so that we can understand what’s going on, what was so beneficial about these lifestyle choices and of course exercise is going to be one of them.
Jonathan: Gary, before we dig into the details here, I need to pop up a level just to give you another virtual high five here over the call because what you just described is good science and correct me if I make a mistake here, but you said, first we do epidemiological studies as known as, we observe people and then we don’t go write books about saying “Here’s the causal implications of blah, blah, blah.” You use observation to then go into the lab and create a very controlled environment often using animals because that’s the way to do it in a most controlled fashion to determine causes because you cannot derive causes from casual observation, is that correct?
Gary: That’s quite true and I teach a lot of undergraduates here at OSU and they are always bringing those individual experiences to me and another herbal, another strange thing they read on the internet and saying, “Well I heard this is an amazing cure for fill in the blank.” Yes, science can’t progress that way, although that will get a lot of books published and sold, it’s not the way that we are going to help people age in a more healthy way.
Jonathan: Brilliant, so you take these observations as starting points, not ending points and you bring it into a lab and you try to understand the underlying neurological and physiological mechanisms at play, correct?
Jonathan: Okay, let’s talk about exercise, what you’ve seen there and then what you’ve borne out in the models?
Gary: You have to look at the model. We have to ask ourselves what is it about aging that is changing how the brain functions and what can exercise do for it and as is the answer for everything when it comes to the brain and people are used to this now, there is a good story and a there is a bad story. It’s never that simple. My answer is going to be a little nuanced and so what we have found is that as the brain ages, the changes that take place introduce a condition of inflammation, sort of like the same thing that happens when you cut yourself and we know that the inflammation that builds in the brain as we get older contributes to our mental decline. It makes the neurons in our brain more likely to die, it makes us more likely to be cognitively impaired and it makes us more likely to develop dementia. That’s been the focus of my work. How can we reverse the consequences of this inflammatory change? I am focusing on one thing. What does inflammation do?
There are some specific answers involving specific transmitters and chemicals in the brain, but the simple statement is that exercising reduces the impact of brain inflammation. It undermines it by removing it and it allows the brain to heal in a way to recover by healing, that sounds strange for the brain, especially as you get older, but it’s the term refers to neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons. We used to think that neurons were never born. It were born in utero and you never got anymore, now we know that’s not the case.
Essentially as you get older, neurogenesis or the birth of new neurons slows way down. This is caused in a big way by the inflammation that builds up. What we are finding is that there are a number of things that people do to reverse the inflammation and exercise is one of them. The question becomes how much exercise? Well, we are trying to answer that and it’s not a lot, you don’t have to become a marathon runner. The suggestion would be probably, most people heard this in the news now, about 20 minutes, three times a week, a good brisk walk or something whatever you enjoy, but we are not suggesting that people go out and become marathon’s winners or decathletes, especially as they are getting older because their joints may be at risk.
That’s the good news of exercise, however, you now have to ask the question “What causes the inflammation in the first place?” Well, part of it is because as you move around through your day and you eat and breathe, that process induces the inflammation. It turns out eating and being active and breathing in oxygen produces brain inflammation and that’s why our brain ages. The flip side of this statement is to say don’t exercise too much because it turns out that all things being equal, you want to have an optimal amount of exercise, eat as few calories as you can possibly get by, exercise a little bit and this becomes the advice that mom has told us for many years, all things in moderation. What we are discovering is that what was true for food, so moderation and how many calories you take in is true for exercise. Don’t overdo it. I think that’s best takeaway point I can say, get some exercise, just don’t overdo it, get a broad diverse diet, but don’t overdo it.
Jonathan: Gary, I think the thing that really hits home for me here is that certainly everyone agrees that over-consuming calories is a bad idea and it’s very hard to live a happy functioning life if you under-consume calories, so we get that we need to have the proper amount of fuel and that intuitively makes sense, but the same message is not told to us about exercise, it’s more, more, more just keep moving, walk on a treadmill desk all day, never stop moving, it’s like a bit of a hamster wheel, so there are two questions, one is at what point is it too much and also just like there is obviously high quality food and low quality food, there is exercise, walking in the park and then there is Olympic power-lifting.
Let’s talk a bit about what is the right quantity you feel and let’s talk about different ages like is it the same for a 25-year-old male as it would be for a 65-year-old woman and let’s talk about the quality of exercise and if your research has looked at that at all.
Gary: Well a lot of research has and we are trying to actually quantify this, this is a difficult thing to do because you are dealing with broad range of body types, genetic makeups, and type of diet that people choose to have. When we answer these questions, we have to answer them in animal models in a very short of general way and simply say all things being equal, this is what I want you to do to. Are there better exercises? We worry about as people get older that their joints are going to take a beating if they go out and start jogging. Even if you are 20 years old, if you are jogging 5 to 10 miles a day, you are going to have some swelling in your joints and that’s going to come back to haunt you, that swelling is inflammation, so I recommend to even my young students right now in their 20s, start exercising modestly, keep it to three or four days a week for maximum half an hour a day, go out and take a walk, get some aerobic, get some weight bearing exercise to keep the bone strong, but don’t overdo it.
We never hear this because there is a massive industry that makes a huge profit on people overdoing exercising, just as there is a huge industry that makes a large profit on people overeating. No restaurant has as sign up that says “Come in and don’t eat,” that would be what you want to do, our culture encourages us to have big dinners which is the worst thing you can do. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper, yet we do exactly the opposite in our culture. We over-exercise and then we go home and eat a lot of calories that our body demands that we take in to compensate. What we are learning from the epidemiological studies and animal studies, and we have to keep learning it over and over again and begging people to pay attention is everything in moderation, that’s your take home lesson.
It isn’t just food, it’s I want you to be an omnivore and eat a very little bit of everything and I want you to be an omnivore when it comes to exercising, do vary your exercises, just don’t do too much of it. I know that sounds crazy, but what we are finding is the very thing that makes people grow old and develop this brain inflammation that we are trying to fight to slow aging is caused by the act of injuring your body and eating too much food and if you could just live slower, you would live longer and by that I mean taking in fewer calories, taking in less oxygen to metabolize those calories and moving around less. Maybe we could take a lesson from the slower moving animals who live much longer than we do, but this sounds so counter intuitive, yet it’s what we find out from people who are living long times.
Jonathan: Gary, it is in such sharp contrast to like literally the badge of honor that people will carry into the office in the morning is as follows “I woke up at 4 a.m. after getting four hours of sleep and then I went and jogged for two hours which made me famished, but it’s okay because then I drank 128 ounces of sugary power drink with electrolytes in it, but because it has electrolytes in it, it’s good for me” and it seems like what we are talking about here again, your running just like a car is going to breakdown faster if you floor it and redline it as long as you can and don’t change the oil, we need to – it’s not about just more exercise and sleep less and work harder, it’s about calm it down a little bit, may be do some yoga.
Gary: Yes, that is a great analogy. Recently, I was interviewed for the July issue of Cosmopolitan and they wanted me to talk about Guyets and you just described it. Guys are different from girls. They eat and indulge in 3000 to 4000 calories and then exercise and burn it all off because they have all these muscles and testosterone helps accelerate that process and that’s a horrible diet, that is the worst possible diet for anyone taking all those calories, yet this is their approach and it’s what our culture seems to reward us for doing, it’s astonishing. We often wonder why do men never live as long as women and that is part of the answer, there is a much bigger story there, but don’t do those kind of stupid things to your body, you are right.
Jonathan: Gary, I know we said we are going to focus on exercise this episode, but you brought up brain inflammation, so I cannot help but ask if you have seen – I mean personally I have read a lot of research around Omega-3s and the quality of the foods we are eating having such an important role on hypothalamic inflammation and appetite regulation and just like energy homeostasis in general, have you looked at that in your animal models?
Gary: I have indeed, I have looked at a lot of different anti-inflammatories just because of the nature of our research and I would not recommend Omega-3s, in fact if you go back a few years everyone was recommending all kinds of different variations of the omega fatty acids and every few years they fall into favor and then out of favor, we are just chasing one snake hole after another. There is no evidence that eating those supplements offer any benefit, all things mean equal again to a regular normal healthy person with a decent diet and all that stuff, but no, don’t bother, it’s a waste of money, we cannot find that they do have any value for your brain or slow the aging process.
As we talked about in the last interview, the only thing I found is the most controversial thing that we discovered and also the most effective and that was one puff of marijuana a day. What do you do with that information if you live in a state where it is not legal? I am not going to recommend that somebody smoke marijuana, but if they are currently considering how can I effectively reduce my brain inflammation, we’ve never found anything more effective than any of our research. You can see how difficult it is sometimes to take this information to the general population. People go “Oh my God, not dope, that’s not going to be helpful,” but it’s just a plant that has some interesting anti-inflammatory in it, but it has this stigma. Taking this kind – our research to the popular grass is fraught with the challenges.
Jonathan: Gary, do you ever couch these findings in a sense where – for example you said a puff of marijuana and let’s say someone took that may be too far and was just like “Okay, what Gary is saying is just smoke a lot of weed all day” and while that may have anti-inflammatory effects, I don’t know if it’s as good for your lungs. Is there like this balancing act you see with like – I mean it’s like side effects, right? Like yes, the chemotherapy may be effective at killing cancer, but it also kills everything else. Have you seen things like that in your research where like yes it does stave off aging, but it’s like if you are hungry, tired and stoned all day, is that really a life worth living?
Gary: That’s a very good point. Actually, we’ve done those studies where we looked at younger versus older animals and just as you might predict, a young brain responds very differently than an old brain. It turns out that even a puff a day, if you are a young like college-age person, ultimately after a couple of weeks, it’s going to build up in your body and actually impair your cognitive function, but it’s different when you are in your 60s and 70s, things change how your brain responds to the same drug changes, this is why you don’t tend to find elderly stoners because they don’t find it to be as pleasant anymore, but the way the brain responds to it from it’s positive aspects is far different.
What we are discovering is that a puff a day in somebody who is in their 60s let’s say, is quite beneficial. It is not going to be as cognitively impairing. The worst thing that we can do from my standpoint is to take someone who is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s and make them even more impaired. What we are trying to do is find the right dose at the right time of a person’s stage of life to help them out and that’s exactly what you are saying, one person’s medicine is another person’s toxin.
Jonathan: Gary, you write for Psychology Today and you have a wonderful blog up there which folks can check out. It’s Your Brain Food, correct?
Gary: Your Brain on Food.
Jonathan: Your Brain on Food, excuse me. So, just go to Psychology Today, type in Gary Wenk and you will find it. Wenk is W-e-n-k. Gary, what has been your experience with – you are in the unique position. I sometimes draw the spectrum out for folks where – on one end of the spectrum, you have people in the media and then as you worked towards the other end of the spectrum, you get like family practitioners and then you get like surgeons and then way on the other end of the spectrum are researchers, and it seems like you fit in that researcher camp and things that researchers know to be true or at least proven in a laboratory setting can take decades to make it down that end of the spectrum if it ever does. Do you – is that been your experience too, I mean you are on the cutting edge of this stuff, you are in the lab, you are seeing this data, but obviously it’s taking a while to make it to the mainstream.
Gary: That’s all quite true, yes I have – some of the compounds I was working with in the 1980s are only just now being given to Alzheimer’s patients. I have been working with these things called super aspirins during the late 90s and early 2000s and they are just now in clinical trials in Europe. These super aspirins, in a nutshell, are things that act like aspirin or ibuprofen or Tylenol, but they work and produce no side effects whatsoever. It’s amazing, there is no more GI distress and things and we are finding that we can make them safer and better, but those things wouldn’t be here in the US for probably another decade.
Most recently I got a hold of a compound that acts like Prozac on the marijuana system in our brain, so it blocks reuptake, the selective reuptake inhibitor of endogenous marijuana, it was incredibly expensive, hard to come by, only one company in the world makes it and it works beautifully. We published the data, but until we put it in humans which could take another 10 years, we wouldn’t know the most critical question “Does it make you high or does it just give you protection from aging?” That’s what we are today, we are finding these things that we are very excited about, but before it ever finds its way to a shelf in a drugstore near you, it could be 20 years, that’s what’s frustrating.
Jonathan: Gary, I love bringing people like you on the show because it also just gives us a glimpse into the iceberg that is the scientific community because we just see individuals who are not in this research setting, this is just tip, even that tip can sometimes seem complicated and nuanced, but just wait until you look below the surface, there is way more going on there and it’s always cool to hear that because I think that anytime we hear someone that makes this seem frivolous or just like “Oh it’s just like calories in and calories out,” the body is a mathematical equation, it’s like “Wait a second, like there is a lot more going on here it seems.”
Gary: That’s quite true yes and people often times don’t have time or patience for the nuanced answers and so they like sound bits we all do and you sometimes have to oversimplify to the point that you are almost lying, but it takes time to unpack all these things. When somebody hears me say, “Take a puff of marijuana a day,” they are going what? – or stop exercising so much – no that can’t be true, but that’s what the research is telling us and that may be the treatments in the future, it’s just today people are not ready to hear these things, but in 10 years it may be different.
Jonathan: Gary, I so appreciate you fighting the good fight and that good fight is creating real science in a controlled laboratory environment and prizing that and not taking things which are observations and making claims as if they have been proven. Kudos to you sir and continue to fight the good fight. We are supporting you.
Gary: Thank you very much Jonathan, good talking to you again.
Jonathan: Again, folks, our guest today is the brilliant professor Gary L. Wenk over with the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience over at the Ohio State University and I hope you enjoyed our conversation as much as I did. Please remember this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. Chat with you soon.
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