Caroline Peckels: New hope for Alzheimer’s treatment

More than 5.3 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that impairs memory and behavior. Recent Elon graduate Caroline Peckels analyzed compounds found in walnuts that may one day lead to new treatment for patients with the degenerative condition as a part of her Lumen Prize project.

“There are several hallmarks that are associated with Alzheimer’s, including the formation of amyloid beta plaques, the breakdown of acetylcholine and oxidative stress, which is when you have free radicals that are unstable and start to attack molecules in the brain,” said Peckels, a 2011 graduate from Pinehurst, N.C. “I’m interested in designing a compound that can alleviate the three different hallmarks at one time.”

Peckels and her mentor, associate professor Joel Karty, worked with associate professor Kathy Matera in the Department of Chemistry to identify the precise characteristics of gallic and ellagic acid in walnuts that lessen the effects of Alzheimer’s. In the labs of the McMichael Science Building, Peckels discovered that it’s the shape of those compounds that may help prevent memory loss and deter the buildup of plaques that ravage the brain in patients. She says this can contribute to medical research about drug design, which currently focuses only on one hallmark of Alzheimer’s: the breakdown of acetylcholine.

Peckels has a personal connection to her research. “One of my grandfathers had Alzheimer’s. He lived in Costa Rica. When I talked with him on the phone, he’d ask me some of the same questions over and over,” she said. “It was just hard to have a conversation with him, to interact with him, knowing there was something going on in his mind that makes him not able to quite be ‘with it.’”

Although there is still much to be learned about Alzheimer’s, Peckels says research such as hers may help lessen the symptoms people experience, an important step as more Baby Boomers begin to age. She has presented her research at Elon’s Spring Undergraduate Research Forum, as well as the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans. She began doctoral studies at Emory University this fall; her career goal is to secure a position in pharmaceutical research.

“I’m not sure we’ll be able to find a cure (for Alzheimer’s) in my lifetime, but hopefully we’ll be able to make a difference in the lives of those it affects right now,” she said.