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USC Professor Probes the Riddle of Aging : Caleb Finch Looks Ahead to Continued--and Rather Dramatic--Progress in Gerontology

January 12, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

He is definitely not one of your theatrical professors, not the formidable John Houseman of TV's "The Paper Chase" or the pedantic Professor Higgins of "My Fair Lady." Caleb Finch is strictly a university professor of the '80s--reddish beard, balding pate, plaid shirt, casual pants, friendly, laid-back manner.

Don't let the picture fool you. Caleb Finch is intent on cracking one of the most pertinent of the late 20th Century's questions: the neurobiological process of aging.

To that end, Finch, professor of gerontology and biological sciences at USC's Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center and also an adjunct professor in the USC School of Medicine, is the first holder of the Arco-William F. Kieschnick chair in the neurobiology of aging.

The $1.5-million chair is named in honor of Kieschnick, retired president and chief executive officer of Atlantic Richfield Co. whose community leadership has included a special interest in the aging population. The chair, Finch said, "will provide a source for my salary, strengthen the program in neurobiology and the neurobiology of aging . . . and increase the resources I have."

Finch, 46, who also is participating in a national study of successful aging funded last fall by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, joined USC's Andrus Center--one of the nation's most prestigious institutions in the study of gerontology--in 1972. He brought impressive credentials: a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a doctorate in cell biology from Rockefeller University. He is co-director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center Consortium of Southern California, one of four national centers funded by the National Institute on Aging, and he has received numerous prestigious professional awards.

His research studies involve the molecular biology of the brain: how hormones affect it, what stress can do, hereditary and environmental factors.

He sat in his third-floor office in the Andrus Gerontology Center, just down the hall from his laboratory, its research equipment and its cages of special mice--meticulously cared for since their role is to live long lives to show the effects of aging--and spoke of his work. He began by saying that the interaction of heredity and environment in aging is not clear, then noted that a person carrying the genes for Huntington's chorea usually dies before age 50.

"There may be a class of genes that may cause premature death or disease," Finch said. "There might be genes that favor maintenance of health.

"There probably are hereditary factors; there certainly are environmental factors. There is a slowly dawning recognition of the bad effects of cigarette smoking, that you are going to die younger than you should if you smoke."

Finch said his research into the aging process, which has been developing over the past 10 years, is aimed at analyzing the role of the brain in the aging process and identifying some parts of the brain as "pacemakers" for the body.

"The endocrine and immune systems control certain parts of the brain and vice versa," Finch said. "Some of these parts change with the chemistry of the brain--the hypothalamus, for example."

In animal studies Finch has found that occupancy by the hormone estrogen damages cells of the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that regulates hormones, body temperature, blood pressure, heart beat and metabolism.

Finch spoke of research with neurotransmitters, which he described as "two nerve cells that talk to one another," much as an electrical spark flashes from one terminal to another.

"One side talks to the other," he said. "The cell responds because it has a receptor--it's like a key fitting into a lock. Receptors that are able to recognize are very important. Some seem to decrease with age, and this relates to a number of neurological diseases of aging.

"We have found very selective changes in some parts of the brain. It is now possible to measure these changes in some parts of the brain with scanning devices."

Finch said that much of the brain-scanning research is being done at Johns Hopkins University and is now only in the experimental stage. Some of the research on families carrying the Huntington's disease genes have shown "some cryptic or hidden" defect, he said.

Expert on Alzheimer's

A nationally recognized expert on Alzheimer's disease, a neurological disease of aging most often evidenced by memory loss and disorientation, Finch is fascinated with the genetic research--and in some awe of its social implications, which include abortion to euthanasia.

"Genetic screening (is) the first step, with lots of implications for human society. You can know if you are carrying the genes for a later-in-life disease, such as Huntington's," he said. "Another will be Alzheimer's disease; between 10% and 50% seem to have some incidence in the family.

"We think the genetic markers are available through amniocentesis. We think we'll know for Alzheimer's within 10 years.

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