Award for brain researcher Heiko Braak

Revolutionary findings on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's

Bonn/Osnabrück/Ulm (Germany), August, 24th, 2017. Heiko Braak, senior professor at Ulm University, will receive this year’s “Hartwig Piepenbrock-DZNE Prize”, which is endowed with 60,000 Euros. The Piepenbrock Group and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) thereby honor Braak’s groundbreaking research on Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson’s disease. The internationally renowned brain scientist discovered, among other findings, that these diseases gradually affect various areas of the brain and consequently go through different stages. The award will be presented in Bonn, Germany on September 7, 2017, in advance of “World Alzheimer’s Day”, which will be celebrated on September 21.

Brain scientist Heiko Braak will receive this year’s “Hartwig Piepenbrock-DZNE Prize”. Source: DZNE / Lentfer
Brain scientist Heiko Braak will receive this year’s “Hartwig Piepenbrock-DZNE Prize”Click on the magnifying glass for a large image.

“To Heiko Braak, we owe fundamental insights on the progression of neurodegenerative diseases in the human brain. He is a pioneer and his work is recognised worldwide,” states Professor Pierluigi Nicotera Professor Pierluigi Nicotera, Chairman of the DZNE’s Executive Board. He notes that Braaks research is groundbreaking, particularly with regards to the spreading of misfolded protein pathology in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. “Braak has discovered that these diseases, which initially develop locally, then propagate through the brain in a characteristic manner. These findings have had a lasting impact on how we see the course of these diseases,” Nicotera says.

“With this award we aim to set an example for excellent science as it provides the foundation for new opportunities of prevention and treatment,” says Olaf Piepenbrock, Managing Partner of the Piepenbrock Group. “In addition, we want to encourage public discussion. Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s pose an enormous burden for patients and relatives. Many people experience this day by day among their families and friends. The prize intends to raise public awareness of this situation.”

Every two years the “Hartwig Piepenbrock-DZNE Prize” honors outstanding contributions to the study of neurodegenerative diseases. These diseases, which include Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, are characterized by neuronal dysfunctions and the death of nerve cells. This may cause dementia, movement disorders or other health problems. The Prize is endowed by the Piepenbrock Group and awarded in remembrance of its former Chief Executive Officer and Chairman. Hartwig Piepenbrock himself passed away after suffering from dementia. He had been committed to art, science and society for many years. The winner is chosen by an international committee, coordinated by the DZNE. This year, the Prize will be awarded for the fourth time.

The Award Winner: Background (click)

Heiko Braak, born in 1937, studied medicine in Berlin, Hamburg and Kiel. In Kiel, he later became a professor for anatomy. After working in Boston and Baltimore, Braak started doing research at Frankfurt am Main University for many years. Meanwhile with emeritus status, the 80-year-old brain researcher continues to be active in science today. Together with his wife and colleague Kelly Del Tredici-Braak, he is working at Ulm University’s Center for Biomedical Research as a senior professor since 2009. Already his first wife, Eva Braak (late), was intensively involved in his research.

For many years, Braak has been focusing on the architecture of the human brain and how it changes due to neurodegenerative diseases. To this purpose, he has examined thousands of postmortem brains for pathological changes. In 2014, the Thomson Reuters media corporation considered him to be one of the world’s most cited scientists in his field. His studies have substantially influenced the view of how Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s develop. In particular, these studies show that these diseases progress gradually over years, often unnoticed by those affected, before first symptoms become apparent. 

Striking features

Alzheimer's disease is characterized by the progressive dysfunction of nerve cells and cell death. Another hallmark is that certain molecules called “tau proteins” form tiny tangles in the brain. Braak determined that these deposits do not occur randomly. Their distribution follows a characteristic pattern, which changes during the course of the disease. The deposits first appear in the temporal lobe, a region in the cerebrum. As the disease progresses, the deposits gradually start to appear in other brain areas. On this basis, Braak divided the development of Alzheimer’s into different phases, which today are called “Braak stages” and are recognized internationally. The original research paper on this topic was published in 1991.

It had been known for a long time that the symptoms of Alzheimer's evolve and change as the disease progresses. However, Braak was the first to associate pathological alterations in the brain and their development over time with clinical symptoms. In a sense, the “Braak stages” represent snapshots of the course of the disease, and describe how it propagates in the brain. During Alzheimer’s, diverse brain regions are affected, one after the other, thereby impairing various brain functions. Consequently, the clinical picture changes over time.

In 2003, Braak presented a similar scheme for Parkinson’s. He, likewise, divided the development of this disease into different stages, depending on affected areas of the brain. Here, again Braak focused on the occurrence of characteristic disease features: the “Lewy bodies”. These microscopically small particles, which primarily contain the protein “alpha-synuclein”, develop in the nerve cells of Parkinson’s patients.

Heiko Braak’s classifications of the phases of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have long since found their way into medical textbooks. For scientists all over the world, the “Braak stages” offer a standardized basis to describe pathological changes in the brain and to compare findings from different patients.

Nevertheless, Braak’s research activities go far beyond this. For example, he substantially contributed to the understanding of Lou Gehrig's disease as well as of argyrophilic grain disease, a rare form of dementia. A hypothesis that Braak put forward also reflects his visionary mind. According to this hypothesis, instead of starting in the brain as generally assumed, Parkinson’s disease may in fact arise in the gastrointestinal system and spread to the brain by following nerve fibers. This conjecture is still being investigated today.

The German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) investigates the causes of diseases of the nervous system and develops strategies for prevention, treatment and care. It is an institution within the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres with nine sites across Germany (Berlin, Bonn, Dresden, Göttingen, Magdeburg, Munich, Rostock/Greifswald, Tübingen and Witten). The DZNE cooperates closely with universities, their clinics and other research facilities.  

The Piepenbrock Group is a family business owned and operated by the fourth generation. Founded 1913, the multi-service-provider supports its clients with a wide range of services within the business units Facility Management, Cleaning Services, Maintenance and Security Services. The subsidiaries LoeschPack and Hastamat succeed in the packaging machine industry, while Planol is an expert in chemical production. Piepenbrock stands for sustainable action and management. Since 2014 the company carries the seal “Gesicherte Nachhaltigkeit” by the German Private Institute for Sustainability and Economy.

Dr. Marcus Neitzert
DZNE, Communications
+49 (0) 228 / 43302-267

To top