Alberto Ascherio, M.D., Dr.P.H.

Dr. Ascherio’s current research is focused on the epidemiology of neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease (PD), and stroke. Data used in his research originate from several large ongoing prospective cohorts, including the 121,700-member Nurses’ Health Study, the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, a cohort of 52,000 men; the Nurses’ Health Study II, a cohort of younger women numbering 116,000, and the Cancer Prevention Study II Nutrition cohort, comprising over 160,000 men and women. An ongoing investigation on the role of infection in the etiology of MS takes advantage of a serum repository maintained by the Department of Defense with archived samples from over 3 million people. Examples of recent research findings include a positive relationship between Epstein-Barr virus infection and risk of MS, an increased risk of MS among smokers, and inverse associations between use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and caffeine consumption and Parkinson’s disease. Ongoing research includes a longitudinal study of ALS, and the investigation of dietary determinants of coronary heart disease and peripheral arterial disease. Dr. Ascherio has also conducted epidemiological research in developing countries including a study on child mortality in Iraq , a survey on victims of land mines in Mozambique, studies on chronic diseases in India, and an investigation on child nutrition and mortality in Brazil.

For more information, please visit Dr. Ascherio’s faculty web site.

Marc Weisskopf, Ph.D., Sc.D.

Marc’s research interests mostly come from his background in neurobiology. He is interested in how environmental factors affect the nervous system, as well as the epidemiology of neurologic disorders. Currently, one focus of his research is cognitive function. In particular, how non-occupational exposure to environmental lead affects cognitive function in a general elderly population, and how this may be modified by particular genetic polymorphisms; as well as how lifestyle factors and particular genetic polymorphisms affect cognitive decline in persons with Parkinson’s disease. He is co-investigator on a grant to look at the association between risk of Parkinson’s Disease and organochlorines in serum collected prospectively, as well as on another grant to look at risk factors for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) mortality using the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Prevention Study II cohort. This is the largest prospective cohort study of risk factors for ALS as the population is over 1 million.

For more information, please visit Marc’s webpage.

Michael A. Schwarzschild, M.D. Ph.D. (US)

After obtaining his undergraduate degree in biochemistry at Princeton University, Michael Schwarzschild went on to medical and graduate neuroscience training at Harvard Medical School. There he pursued his PhD thesis with Dr. Richard Zigmond on the neurochemistry of tyrosine hydroxylase, the enzyme controlling dopamine biosynthesis. He next undertook neurology residency and then Parkinson’s disease fellowship training at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston under the guidance of Drs. Anne Young and John Growdon. During a postdoctoral research fellowship with Dr. Steve Hyman in the mid-90′s, he developed expertise in gene regulation and cell death pathways in the basal ganglia (the dopamine-rich brain region most affected in Parkinson’s disease).

Since 1996 Dr. Schwarzschild has directed the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory at the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease at MGH, focusing on the role of three purines (adenosine, caffeine and urate) in animal models of PD. Together with Dr. Jiang-Fan Chen he discovered the neuroprotective properties of adenosine A2A receptor blockers (including caffeine) in mouse models of the disease. His research team then provided evidence that these drugs may help prevent dyskinesia, a side effect of standard antiparkinsonian therapy. His leadership of a series of international research conferences in 2002 and 2006 on A2A receptors in Parkinson’s has helped translate our understanding of this drug target into an promising new therapy for Parkinson’s patients.

Most recently, through a fruitful interdisciplinary collaboration with epidemiologist Dr. Alberto Ascherio and his team at the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. Schwarzschild and his colleagues have discovered an unprecedented clue to why disease progression is mild in some and aggressive in others. In partnership with the Parkinson Study Group (PSG) they showed that the purine antioxidant urate can serve as a predictor of not only the risk of PD, but also the rate at which it progresses. Their work identifies urate as a molecular biomarker of PD progression rate, and as a candidate neuroprotective agent too. The convergent epidemiological and clinical data have led to development of a major national clinical trial for which he serves as PI.

Dr. Schwarzschild has been the recipient of the George C. Cotzias career award from the American Parkinson’s Disease Association and the Paul Beeson Physician Faculty Scholar award from the American Federation for Aging Research. Since 1997 he has been an active clinical investigator in therapeutic trials of the PSG. He is currently an Associate Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and a staff physician on the Neurology Service at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he works with Parkinson’s patients and their families in his weekly movement disorders clinic.

Xiang Gao, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Gao’s current research aims to investigate relationships between environmental/dietary factors and risk of neurological deceases, including Parkinson’s disease (PD) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Data from several large ongoing prospective cohorts have been used, including Nurses’ Health Study, and Health Professionals Fellow-up Study.

Kristen Lyall

Kristen joined the neuroepi group as a doctoral student in 2005 to help initiate a study of autism spectrum disorders. She investigated maternal risk factors for autism spectrum disorders in her doctoral thesis. Currently, she is a postdoctoral research fellow at the UC Davis MIND Institute, and continues work with the neuroepi lab as a Visiting Scientist examining maternal reproductive, lifestyle, and dietary factors in association with autism and related conditions.

Natalia (Morozova) Palacios, Sc.D.

Natalia received her doctorate in Nutritional Epidemiology from HSPH in 2008. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Rice University, where she majored in Biochemistry. She is currently a post-doctoral research fellow in Environmental Epidemiology.

Natalia is interested in the epidemiology of ALS and Parkinson’s disease. Her projects have included Analyses of Diet and ALS in the CPS II cohort, Study of Trends in Male to Female ratios of smoking and Parkinson’s disease, and ALS follow-up in the Nurses’ Health Study. She has also studied interactions between caffeine and estrogen metabolizing genes and caffeine intake in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Natasha is currently working on environmental and genetic risk factors of Parkinson’s disease.

Natalia also has a strong interest in Nutrition policy and is co-instructor of Nut 226 – Seminar of Nutrition Policy, at HSPH.

Her hobbies include tennis, running, yoga, and reading, and she speaks fluent French and Russian.

Kassandra Munger, Sc.D.

After receiving her masters degree in epidemiology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 2001, Kassandra came to the Harvard School of Public Health as the project coordinator/director of the multiple sclerosis studies in the neuroepidemiology group. In 2004, she enrolled in the doctoral program in nutritional epidemiology, which she completed in 2009, and she continues to serve as the MS project director.  Her main research area of interest is how diet, especially vitamin D, may affect the risk and progression of MS and type 1 diabetes.  She has also been actively involved in studies examining whether infection with Epstein-Barr virus or Chlamydia pneumonia increase MS risk.

Éilis O’Reilly, Sc.D.

Éilis is a post-doctoral research associate in the neuroepi group. Her substantive research areas include the long-term effects of diet, other life-style habits, and environmental exposures on the incidence of neurological disease. Her methodological interest is in methods for drawing causal inferences from longitudinal data with time-varying exposures. She also has a keen interest in the implementation of public health initiatives and policy following epidemiological discovery.

Leslie Unger

Leslie joined our team as a staff assistant in the fall of 2005.  She received her B.A. from UC Berkeley with a major in Spanish and a minor in music.  Leslie studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and also spent time in Seoul, South Korea.  She speaks fluent Spanish and intermediate Korean.  She is currently taking classes in psychology.