St. John’s Researcher Studying Sharks for Clues to Cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Diseases

Dr. Jai Dwivedi in his lab in St. Albert's Hall

Dr. Jai Dwivedi in his lab in St. Albert Hall

July 28, 2022

Jai Dwivedi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Director of Laboratory Instruction in the Department of Biological Sciences at St. John’s University, has been fascinated by sharks since childhood—and that fascination has led him to research the species for clues to curing two vexing human conditions: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds, Dr. Dwivedi said. Sharks and stingrays, closely related, have the unique ability to replace deteriorating brain-cell neurons. Among humans, who are unable to replace such neurons, brain cell deterioration is thought to contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We study sharks because of what they can teach us,” said Dr. Dwivedi, who received his doctorate in biology from St. John’s in 2005. “If you want to know what might happen to humans in the future, why not study a species that has inhabited the planet largely unchanged for one million years?”

Despite their fearsome reputation, sharks are ripe for study, Dr. Dwivedi said. Increased interactions with humans have led to scary headlines, particularly on Long Island, where officials have documented multiple shark incidents this summer.

Where some see sharks as predators to be avoided, Dr. Dwivedi views them as holding clues to the future of the human species. In his lab on St. John’s Queens, NY, campus, he studies why shark and stingray stem cells can so efficiently differentiate into brain-cell neurons, and if it is possible to replicate that process in humans to battle two currently incurable diseases.

Dr. Dwivedi began his research on sharks while doing post-doctoral work at the University of Texas from 2005 to 2011. He returned to St. John’s in 2011.

“Human neurons have all of the material they need to divide, but there are several proteins that stop the process,” Dr. Dwivedi explained. “The neurons do everything they are supposed to do, but they won’t divide. Figuring that out could be significant to understanding human diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s that are neuro-defective in nature.”

That answer is still years away, Dr. Dwivedi said. In the meantime, he has become a sought-after expert on shark behavior. As a guest in recent radio interviews, he explained why shark incidents seem to be on the rise in the Northeast.

“Overfishing has forced sharks to come closer to shore to feed,” Dr. Dwivedi said.

“It’s just competition for resources. At any point that we are in the water for about 90 minutes or more, we are probably within 100 yards of a shark.”

But that is no reason to panic, Dr. Dwivedi said.

“Most of the time we don’t encounter sharks and they do a good job of avoiding us,” Dr. Dwivedi said. “Humans are not on their menu, but we are applying more and more pressure to their food sources.”

Despite the recent spate of incidents, research shows global shark populations are actually declining, Dr. Dwivedi said. Overfishing and the introduction of chemicals into the world’s oceans have led to infertility, premature death, and other issues for sharks.

Some of these chemicals include tributyltin, a hull paint used on some boats to keep barnacles and other annoying sea life at bay. In time, the chemical leeches off the boats and into the water, threatening sharks and their supply of food.

Dr. Dwivedi published a research paper on the impact of tributyltin on stingrays in 2006 and has also studied cephalopods such as squid and octopus for clues to human neurological signaling.

As he studies sharks for links to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Dr. Dwivedi is also watching the impact of chemicals on marine populations. “These chemicals were not meant to prevent sharks, but they can create significant problems for the species,” he said.