Immersive Workshop Trains Next Generation of Alzheimer’s Researchers

By Julia Roth, BrightFocus Foundation

  • Research News
Published on:
Student participants at the 2023 Alzheimer’s Fast Track workshop smiling together.
Student participants at the 2023 Alzheimer’s Fast Track workshop.

What steps can people take to keep their brains healthy as they age? Does our gut bacteria influence Alzheimer’s risk? And how can promising scientists at the early stages of their careers studying Alzheimer’s disease secure grant funding to move their research forward?  

These were among the many questions posed at BrightFocus Foundation’s Alzheimer’s Fast Track, an immersive workshop for early-career scientists held Nov. 8-10 in Washington, D.C. As an official pre-meeting to the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, this year’s sold-out event convened 80 participants from 19 U.S. states and six countries, including Japan, Spain, and Sweden.  

“Discovering new treatments, prevention mechanisms, and ultimately a cure for Alzheimer’s disease requires insights across diverse areas of expertise from scientists around the world,” said BrightFocus President and CEO Stacy Pagos Haller. “The dedication and enthusiasm of the researchers at Alzheimer’s Fast Track is inspiring and gives me great optimism for a future without Alzheimer’s disease.” 

Co-chairs for this year’s workshop were Frank LaFerla, PhD, dean of the School of Biological Sciences and Chancellor’s Professor in the department of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine; Cynthia Lemere, PhD, associate professor of neurology in the Ann Romney Center for Neurologic Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School; Sharyn Rossi, PhD, director of neuroscience programs at BrightFocus Foundation; and Harry W.M. Steinbusch, PhD, a professor in cellular and translational neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. 

Twenty-four expert presenters from institutions including Mayo Clinic, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Washington University in St. Louis led the group in discussions around the biggest ideas and novel approaches to Alzheimer’s disease, including new treatments, how to combat cellular senescence — damaged cells that are thought to contribute to Alzheimer’s — and inflammaging, persistent, low-grade inflammation that develops with age. A recurring theme was how to develop Alzheimer’s treatments that are personalized for all populations. Discovering the variances in how Alzheimer’s affects people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds will lead to better treatment options for all. 

On the last day, the tables turned. Students applied their learnings by presenting a 15-minute grant proposal pitch for a hypothetical research idea to a panel of experts.  

For Zahra Shirzadi, PhD, a research fellow at Mass General Brigham and Harvard Medical School, the program was as much a learning opportunity as a unique chance to connect with experts in the field.  

“Because Alzheimer’s disease research is such a multidisciplinary field, it requires people from different areas of expertise to work together to find a solution. This includes neurologists, radiologists, pathologists, engineers, physicists, biochemists. Alzheimer’s Fast Track creates an environment for people to come together, work together on an idea to push the field forward and find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease,” she said. 

Dr. Shirzadi, who received a grant from Alzheimer’s Disease Research earlier this year, is studying ways to identify patients most at risk for severe side effects of anti-amyloid drugs. The goal is to help guide clinicians to find personalized treatments for patients.

A Growing Epidemic

More than 6.7 million Americans older than 65 have Alzheimer's disease. By 2050, this number is projected to reach 12.7 million, unless scientists develop new approaches to prevent or cure the disease. Alzheimer’s Fast Track equips scientists with the skills they need to successfully apply for funding from government and private sources, including BrightFocus Foundation’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research program, to move their promising research ideas forward. Since its founding in 2008, the workshop has educated and trained more than 500 scientists from over 25 countries since its inception. 

Among the expert speakers this year was Donald F. Weaver, MD, PhD, a clinical neurologist at the University of Toronto, who discussed his industry-changing hypothesis characterizing Alzheimer's as an autoimmune disease. This idea has led to new ways of thinking about the disease and opened new avenues for study and treatment.  

Dr. Weaver is himself a past recipient of an Alzheimer’s Disease Research award. In 2007, he received a $1 million grant to study protein misfolding in Alzheimer’s disease and explore the possibility of a single, unified treatment approach. This funding helped catalyze the development of potential new drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease and inspired his hypothesis about the disease origins.  

“The future of Alzheimer’s disease research is bright. But to ensure its success, we need bright researchers at the helm. This event nurtures them and ensures that we will have these people leading us forward,” Dr. Weaver said. 

A range of participants attended this year’s workshop—from undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows to assistant and full professors—to learn about the latest research findings, network with peers, and transition from one area of expertise into the sphere of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia research. 
To increase access to educational programs like Alzheimer’s Fast Track, BrightFocus offers travel fellowships for scientists, including those from groups that are underrepresented in the field. Twenty-five participants from under-represented populations received diversity travel grants/registration waivers to attend this year’s program. 

Recognizing Alzheimer’s Disease Research Grant Recipients 

Following the workshop, BrightFocus held a networking reception and awards ceremony honoring the 26 recipients of 2023 Alzheimer’s Disease Research grants, including the two grantees with the highest-scoring proposals from the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Scientific Review Committee.

Zahra Shirzadi, PhD, received the Dr. Edward H. Koo Postdoctoral Fellowship Award for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and David Gate, PhD, of Northwestern University, received the Distinguished Investigator Award for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. 

This year's expert speakers were:

  • Ganesh Babulal, PhD, OTD, Washington University School of Medicine 
  • Darren Baker, PhD, Mayo Clinic 
  • Laura Baker, PhD, Wake Forest University School of Medicine 
  • Diane Bovenkamp, PhD, BrightFocus Foundation
  • Roderick Corriveau, PhD, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke 
  • Laura Cox, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School  
  • Crystal M. Glover, PhD, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center 
  • Heidi Jacobs, PhD, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School 
  • Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, Washington University School of Medicine 
  • Kenneth Kosik, MD, University of California, Santa Barbara 
  • Frank LaFerla, PhD, University of California Irvine 
  • Cynthia Lemere, PhD, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School 
  • Eliezer Masliah, MD, National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health 
  • Bri McWhorter, MFA, Activate to Captivate LLC 
  • Jerome Mertens, PhD, University of California, San Diego 
  • Melissa Murray, PhD, Mayo Clinic Florida 
  • Álvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, Hebrew SeniorLife, Harvard Medical School 
  • Sharyn Rossi, PhD, BrightFocus Foundation 
  • Andrew J. Saykin, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine 
  • Rudy Schreiber, PhD, Maastricht University (The Netherlands) 
  • Yaakov Stern, PhD, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons 
  • Malú Gámez Tansey, University of Florida 
  • Donald F. Weaver, MD, PhD, University of Toronto (Canada) 
  • Cheryl Wellington, PhD, University of British Columbia (Canada) 
  • Donna M. Wilcock, PhD, Indiana University 


About BrightFocus Foundation

BrightFocus Foundation is a premier global nonprofit funder of research to defeat Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. Through its flagship research programs — Alzheimer’s Disease Research, Macular Degeneration Research, and National Glaucoma Research — the Foundation has awarded nearly $290 million in groundbreaking research funding over the past 50 years and shares the latest research findings, expert information, and resources to empower the millions impacted by these devastating diseases. Learn more at

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