Together with his wife, Virginia Man-Yee Lee, researcher John Trojanowski wrote more than 500 scientific papers that made him one of the world’s leading authorities on abnormally-folded proteins that damage the brain:
• tau proteins in Alzheimer disease
• alpha-synuclein in Lewy bodies in Parkinson’s disease
• TDP-43 in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal degeneration.
His colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania said that his scientific contributions were “phenomenal,” because they “combined pathology and biochemistry to figure out what goes wrong, and why, when people get diseases as disparate as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS. The results can lead to improved diagnosis and potential treatments” (New York Times, March 1, 2022).
Early Life and Career in Research
Trojanowski was born on December 17, 1946, the second of seven children, to an Air Force officer father, so he spent his childhood moving from one base to another in the United States and Germany. He was graduated from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1970 and six years later he received a combined MD-PhD degree from Tufts University. He then took a residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital where he met his future wife, Dr. Lee, in a bar. She was a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital. They married in 1979 and worked as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania for the rest of his life. He mentored many doctoral fellows who went on to become leading professors at major medical schools. Trojanowski spent most of his time as a researcher in the laboratory analyzing how the brain functions, studying pathology slides of the brain under a microscope, and working on the biochemistry of how the brain functions.
A Tragic Death
About a year ago, Trojanowski started to trip and fall, particularly when he climbed stairs, and he would wake up in the middle of the night and go out wandering. In December 2021, he fell and was paralyzed from the neck down. A CT Scan X-ray showed bleeding and clots in his spinal cord. Two surgeries to remove the clots failed to help him and he was placed on a ventilator. He suffered repeated infections in his spinal canal. It appeared that he was not going to recover from the infections that caused the clots that damaged his brain to cause paralysis, so he decided he did not want to be placed in hospice care and continue to suffer. On February 8, 2022, he requested that doctors remove his ventilator tube, and he died two and a half hours later.
Could His Death Have Been Caused By His Research?
Nobody knows if the brain damage that caused his paralysis may have come from infections that were transmitted while handling the brains of people who had diseases that damaged the brain. I believe this is possible. Many reports show that infections can cause clots in the brain and permanent brain damage (Front Immunol, Nov 15, 2019;10: 2569). Trojanowski spent a tremendous amount of his research time examining the brains of people who suffered from various causes of dementia and other brain damage. There is extensive evidence that suggests, but has not proven, that the tau proteins found in the brains of people who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by a virus or other infectious agent and therefore could be contagious:
• The Infectious Etiology of Alzheimer’s Disease. Curr Neuropharmacol, 2017;15(7):996–1009.
• Herpesviruses in brain and Alzheimer’s disease. J Pathol, 2002;197(3):395–402.
• PLOS Pathology, Nov 12, 2020
Current Research on Causes of Dementia
More than 30 percent of North Americans over the age of 85 suffer from brain damage that results in dementia. Many studies show that having harmful bacteria in your colon increases risk for dementia (JAMA Netw Open, Feb 8, 2022;5(2):e2143941). Those who suffer from dementia have:
• markedly increased MRI evidence of brain bleeds and strokes
• markedly decreased colon levels of Bacteroides (enterotype I), which are healthful bacteria that decrease inflammation and help to lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure
• markedly increased harmful colon bacteria of enterotype III that increase inflammation
• increased stool concentrations of ammonia, indole, skatole, and phenol that are produced by harmful colon bacteria when they try to invade colon cells .
You have more than 100 trillion bacteria, of about 1000 different species, living in your colon. Many different studies have shown that what you eat determines which types of bacteria live in your colon and that certain types of bacteria can turn on your immune system to cause inflammation that increases risk for dementia (Curr Opin Pharmacol, 2017;37:87–92), as well as heart attacks, certain cancers, and auto-immune diseases (J. Alzheimers Dis, 2017;58:1–15). See Dementia Risk Increased by Harmful Bacteria in Your Colon
Heart Attack Prevention Measures Also Reduce Dementia Risk
Just about every risk factor for a heart attack has been shown to also increase risk for dementia and you can reduce your risk for suffering from dementia by up to 70 percent when you follow the healthful habits that help to prevent heart attacks (JAMA, Aug 21, 2018;320(7):657-664):
• eat an anti-inflammatory diet
• avoid smoking, alcohol, and obesity
• exercise, preferably every day
• treat diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol
See Risk for Dementia Goes Down with Steps to Prevent Heart Attacks
Honoring John Trojanowski’s Battle Against Diseases of the Brain
Since recent studies show that brain damage that results in dementia may be influenced to a large degree by the types of bacteria living in your colon, I recommend eating the foods that encourage growth of healthful bacteria and discourage the harmful types. Harmful colon bacteria can cause inflammation that can increase your risk for dementia as well as for heart attacks, strokes and certain cancers. You can reduce inflammation by:
• eating a plant-based diet with a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and fruits
• restricting red meat, processed meats, fried foods, sugar-added foods and all drinks with sugar in them
• avoiding obesity
• avoiding smoke and alcohol
• exercising regularly
If you are not already eating a healthful plant-based diet and engaging in regular exercise, check with your doctor and then try to start a new diet and exercise program as soon as possible.
John Quinn Trojanowski
December 17, 1946 – February 8, 2022