Feature on Jonathan Artal

image of Jonathan and his brother

Jonathan Artal, a Beverly Hills High School graduate and incoming freshman at Stanford University, shares his research on Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease. The study is titled, “High Prevalence of Vascular and Metabolic Risk Factors Among Down Syndrome Patients with Alzheimer’s Disease: A Survey Report of the National Down Syndrome Registry (DS-Connect)” and is published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. He lives in Los Angeles with his family, including his 14-year-old brother, Ethan, who has Down Syndrome.

            Jonathan discovered his passion for biology and medicine at a very young age. He started on his now-published research study on the risk factors among individuals with Down Syndrome (DS) who also have Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) when he was just 15-years-old. When asked why he chose to research that topic specifically, he replied:

“I watched my great-grandmother struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, and I learned about the high likelihood of my brother developing Alzheimer’s at a relatively young age because he has Down Syndrome. My passion to do research came from my desire to help Ethan and people like him”.

            His passion to help his family and others drove him to reach out to DS and AD researchers from all over the Los Angeles area. After much persistence, Jonathan found Drs. Ayesha and Dean Sherzai, co-directors of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, to help turn his dream into a reality.

            Jonathan’s research aimed to answer the following question: could lifestyle-related health factors in individuals with DS, such as type 2 diabetes, thyroid disorders, and high cholesterol, influence the likelihood of developing AD? To begin to answer it, he used the National Down Syndrome Registry and information within the NIH database DS-Connect to identify 13 individuals with DS and AD. All of the individuals were over 30-years-old and had filled out surveys which included data on their lifestyle risk factors. They found that individuals with both DS and AD had a significantly higher prevalence of thyroid disorders, diabetes, and high cholesterol than individuals with DS over 30-years-old who did not have AD. Since these lifestyle-related metabolic risk factors are modifiable, this study shows that management of these risk factors has the potential to reduce the prevalence of AD among DS individuals. That being said, this was only a preliminary study. Future studies are needed to explore the actual mechanism by which these lifestyle-related risk factors increase the prevalence of AD among individuals with DS.

Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association published the abstract of the study, and Drs. Sherzai presented it at the 2017 Alzheimer’s International Conference in London. Jonathan had planned to present, but weeks before the conference, the organizers were surprised to discover that Jonathan was 16-years-old, and the conference was only open to people over 18-year-olds.

“It was pretty funny. I remember getting an email confirming that I was not going to bring any family members or friends under the age of 18 to the conference. I was slightly confused and responded, ‘but I’m not even 18!’. They were shocked—I think they just assumed that everyone presenting was over 18. So unfortunately, I wasn’t able to go, but Drs. Sherzai presented for me.”

            This summer, Jonathan is working on a follow-up study with Drs. Shezai which is focused on the increased prevalence of AD in DS individuals with type 2 diabetes specifically. He hopes to finish the study before heading off to Stanford.

What struck me most about Jonathan, more than his academic achievements or drive, was how much he loves and cares for his brother, Ethan. Jonathan lit up when I asked him about Ethan and how having a family member with Down Syndrome has impacted him:

“Ethan is a really special person… he has been the most fundamental person in shaping who I am, what my values are, and what I want to do in life. I’ve seen Ethan be smiling and loving and caring in the face of people who think that because he is different he is less than they are. He has shown me an ideal to strive for.”

Jonathan is excited to attend Stanford University in the fall of 2018. He hopes to continue his Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s research and work with the Down Syndrome lab at Stanford led by Dr. Craig Heller.