“Memory is one of the most exciting research topics I know because it is so close to human reality”, says Christine von Arnim. The Alzheimer’s disease researcher from the University of Ulm is not the only researcher who is intrigued by the philosophy behind the research and interested in far more than just atomistic approaches. The young neurologist covers the entire field of Alzheimer’s research, from experimental laboratory research to patient treatment and care.
Christine von Arnim is head of the Memory Clinic and managing director of the interdisciplinary Centre of Geriatrics in Ulm and as such has a relatively holistic view of the issue of Alzheimer’s. She knows that her basic research makes important contributions to improving our understanding of the pathogenesis (transport proteins involved in the APP metabolism) of the disease. At the same time, she also believes that it is necessary to focus on many aspects in order to be able to develop therapies for this complex disease that still has no cure.
Christine von Arnim’s path into medical research was mapped out from the start: she realised from her mother’s experience as a doctor that medicine provided an excellent basic education. As a doctor she would be able to deal with human beings, something that other scientific disciplines would not enable her to do. In addition, Christine von Arnim soon knew that she wanted to become a researcher. As a medical student at the University of Freiburg (1990 – 1997) she very much enjoyed the lectures given by neuroanatomist Michael Frotscher. After her initial studies, she went on to do her doctorate on a psychiatric topic (receptors in people suffering from depression) and developed an interest in fundamental biological issues, i.e. what is happening in cells. At the age of 23, she thought that she was a bit too young for a scientific career and decided to continue her medical training, first in Mannheim and from 1998 onwards in Ulm. The move from Mannheim to Ulm turned out to be an excellent decision. Christine von Arnim joined the laboratory of Matthias Riepe, who is now head of the Department of Gerontopsychiatry. In Riepe’s lab, she was able to focus on clinical education as well as use the laboratory techniques she had learnt during her doctorate; she contributed to the establishment of chronic hypotaxia models (stroke) and did her first experiments with Alzheimer's mice in which she investigated vascular risk factors. The famous Alzheimer’s disease researcher Konrad von Beyreuther from Heidelberg had a decisive influence on the young neurologist who was increasingly focusing on this neurodegenerative disease, which eventually led to her decision to make the disease her special field of research.
The day after passing her expert examination, Christine von Arnim started work at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Centre at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. Her husband, a chemist, joined her. She took up a post in the laboratory of Bradley T. Hyman, a leading Alzheimer’s disease researcher (von Arnim’s motto was if you want to really learn what Alzheimer’s disease is all about, you have to work with the best), a fascinating person, who was also a medical specialist and treating doctor. Hyman’s laboratory covered a broad range of research aspects associated with Alzheimer’s. Christine von Arnim still remembers the lab’s motto, which was “to make the difference, to cure Alzheimer’s”.
Her research group focused on apolipoprotein E. She also worked on intracellular transport mechanisms and the proteins that mediated these transport processes. During her stay in Boston, she learned to use many innovative imaging methods, including fluorescence lifetime imaging (FLIM), which she further developed with Angelika Rück from the Ulm-based ILM when she returned to Ulm in 2006. Christine von Arnim habilitated in 2006 on the cellular mechanisms of transport and processing of amyloid precursor protein (APP) and beta secretase in Alzheimer’s disease. She has been senior physician in the Department of Neurology at Ulm University Hospital since 2006 and was appointed adjunct professor at the University of Ulm in 2008.
With a grant from the Alzheimer Research Initiative, Christine von Arnim began setting up her laboratory in 2006. It is difficult to typecast Christine von Arnim, who had in the meantime become the mother of four children: thousands of Alzheimer's researchers are working on one particular protein; Christine von Arnim is the exception as she likes to be involved in many projects. She is particularly enthusiastic about an epidemiological study (ActiFE: Activity and Function in the Elderly) which involved 1,500 men and women from the Ulm area aged between 65 and 90. Objective activity measurements were carried out for the first time ever and combined with comprehensive geriatric information, medical measurements and biomarkers. The first cohort is currently being analysed and Christine von Arnim hopes that the study will provide them with important information about ways to help people remain healthy as they age. This study approaches the problem of ageing from the opposite angle to normal.
As a treating doctor, Christine von Arnim is well aware of the huge importance of making early diagnoses. Over the last few years, she has been establishing a biobank in the Memory Clinic, where cerebrospinal fluid is stored for research purposes. These samples are of enormous value for research into Alzheimer’s disease. Although Alzheimer’s research in Ulm is not part of one of the prestigious centres of excellence in Germany, the department is nevertheless well equipped and has all the infrastructure necessary to compete with international laboratories in the diagnosis of cerebrospinal fluid and clinical neurochemistry.
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