Independent Minds, Working Together
Sangram S. Sisodia

Sangram S. Sisodia '77

Professor of Neurosciences & Director of the Center for Molecular Neurobiology, The University of Chicago

There is a person you know well who has the ability to reduce your chances of getting a dreaded and increasingly common disease. That person is you.

By now you are probably paying attention.  The world’s scientific community certainly did, when Sam Sisodia, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, announced the results of groundbreaking research on Alzheimer’s disease.  Sisodia, one of the first scientists to study the disease by looking at the biochemistry of the brain’s molecules, discovered that exercise significantly delays the onset of plaque in the brain.

Sisodia, who dreamed of becoming a physician when he came to Wooster, believes that the alternative path that he took—biochemistry research and teaching—happened for a reason. “My professors at Wooster were instrumental in moving me in the direction I took. They helped me understand that I could pursue my medicine-directed goals by studying biochemistry.”

Following his doctoral work at The University of Georgia, Sisodia worked on a post-doctorate at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he collaborated with some of the world’s leading scientists in the area of Alzheimer’s research.  “But the work they were doing was just pathology,” says Sisodia. “Nobody had any idea then how these abnormal pathologies develop. I joined the group, directed by a famous neurologist, and we made a pact. He didn’t understand anything about what I did, and I didn’t understand anything about the brain. I dug deep. I learned by hands-on work and I learned from my colleagues.” 

Sisodia dove into the unexplored juncture of two disciplines. The result was a discovery that has the potential to change attitudes, behaviors, and outcomes relating to Alzheimer’s disease.  Sisodia and his team bred mice that developed plaque that mimicked the plaque  seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Some mice were allowed to exercise; some were not. The mice that exercised had 50-80 percent less plaque than those who did not. The brains of these active mice produced twice as much of an enzyme that prevents plaque buildup. Additionally, they had twice as many blood vessels, which serve to carry plaque away to organs like the liver, where it can be destroyed.  

Today, approximately 23 million people have the disease worldwide. In 40 years, that number will explode to more than 103 million.  Does his research help to explain the numbers? Sisodia does not hesitate. “Yes,” he says.  Some of the increased occurrences will be due to longer life expectancies, particularly in densely populated countries like India and China. But in the United States, Sisodia is convinced that a sedentary lifestyle is the culprit. “I think society has become very lazy.”

“I don’t look over their shoulders.”

When Sisodia advises doctoral students at the University of Chicago, he uses the same philosophy that he found successful at Wooster, working on his Independent Study. “I don’t look over their shoulders and say ‘This is the way you should design the experiment, or ‘This is how you should analyze the results.’ I want them to do everything. When they get their results, then they will see what they have done wrong. And this is how you learn—by working in a way that forces you to think about different ways of designing and interpreting an experiment.

“This way of thinking helped me to succeed at Johns Hopkins. This is how I learned at Wooster. The Wooster experience forced me to expand my own intellectual breadth by seeking out people and by thinking on my feet.”