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Gail V. W. Johnson, PHD

Meet The Scientist 

GAIL V. W. JOHNSON, PHDGail V. W. Johnson, PHD

Professor, Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine Professor, Center for Neurotherapeutics Discovery Professor, Department of Pharmacology and Physiology

Helping Brain Cells Get Rid of Toxic Proteins to Stop Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease destroys brain cells, in part, by causing a protein called tau to become abnormally sticky which makes it malfunction and eventually form clumps called neurofibrillary tangles. Not only is this bad for the cells that possess the “toxic tau,” but it also gets passed to neighboring brain cells, or neurons, making them sick and speeding the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. For those reasons, scientists like Dr. Gail Johnson are examining cellular structure and communication to prevent tau accumulation and block its spread.

All proteins are made, do their job and then are removed by the cell when they are damaged or no longer needed. Tau is no exception; however how a neuron recognizes and gets rid of pathological forms of tau is not well-understood. Therefore a focus of the Johnson lab is on understanding the cellular processes involved in detecting and degrading potentially disease-causing forms of tau using both genetic and pharmacological approaches. 

“We need to know how the cells get rid of pathological tau in order to develop interventions in the future to facilitate the process and potentially slow disease progression,” says Johnson. “We need to understand how and why cells become more susceptible to negative signals and pathways during aging. Then we can figure out how to manipulate the cell to fix the problem.” 

Johnson is also a great believer in exercise and eating properly. An avid cyclist who rides her bike to work every day—even in the Rochester winters— Johnson is also working with a protein called Nrf2 that protects against oxidative damage triggered by injury and inflammation. A phytochemical found in cruciferous vegetables like kale and broccoli activates Nrf2, reinforcing that eating your leafy greens is important. “Healthy eating for your entire life and using your brain and body is likely to be an indicator of a decreased possibility of getting Alzheimer’s,” says Johnson.