Distinguished Professor Sir Richard Faull

Our keynote speaker was distinguished Prof Sir Richard Faull, one of New Zealand’s finest physicians who has spent most if not all of his career looking at the human brain.
He has been engaged in research into Huntington’s disease and latterly the dementia. His academic achievements and honours are numerous. Amongst other things he’s been awarded the Rutherford medal the highest honour bestowed on anybody by the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Sir Richard travels a world with a plastinated brain which demonstrates his enthusiasm for the research he has undertaken in his career and that enthusiasm bubbled through into his address to our club.
The brain is responsible for who we are, it is all about what we are and what we become. There are 100 billion brain cells in an average brain. Each cell gets on average at input from 100,000 other cells. That communication enables us to do what we do.
The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa. Why we don’t know. That is a subject of ongoing research.
The brain is a complex organism various lobes of the brain control various activities. Although it is only a small part of the human body it absorbs 20% of the oxygen we breathe. It is our most valuable asset. It keeps us alive and keeps us who we are.
Sir Richard showed us the brain of a 69-year-old individual with Alzheimer’s. Instead of a weight of 1500 g which is roughly the average weight of the normal human brain it weighed 900 g and demonstrated significant atrophy. The temporal lobe was severely damaged.
Finding out why this happens is the challenge of research into Alzheimer’s disease. When Alzheimer’s appears individual brain cells die causing neurological pathways to shutdown stopping brain cells from communicating with each other. We think Alzheimer’s is caused by abnormal proteins accumulating in brain cells affecting the temporal lobe. Those proteins spread to the balance of the brain causing the atrophy mentioned.

Presently there are about 62,000 people affected by Alzheimer’s and that number is expected to increase as years pass.


The early signs of Alzheimer’s are slowly developing problems with memory remembering what things are forgetting appointments and forgetting what things like car-keys are and what they do.

Sir Richard told us were not going to be able to cure the disease within the foreseeable future. What we are trying to do is limit its impact on humans.


Sir Richard told us that research has shown if you can slow the progress of Alzheimer’s by two years then the effects drop by 20% and over five years by 50%. I.e. if you push out the impact of Alzheimer’s then you get to enjoy life longer.


Sir Richard told us of a number of things can be done to slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s. None of them are magic bullets on their own but combined they seem to have a significant impact.

The first point to note is what is good for the head is good for the brain.  Don't get concussed regularly. Don't abuse alcohol and other substances.  simple stuff really but life (or brain) preserving

 Diabetes hypertension smoking obesity lack of exercise are all considered to be causative of Alzheimer’s in later life.


Education is important as is cognitive activity that is to say reading, writing, crossword puzzles, singing, learning, visiting a library and reading, crafts knitting all these keep the brain occupied an active

Physical activity is important exercise improves brain activity. That improves cognition so walk, swim, exercise, do yoga, play golf, garden and do similar things.

Social interaction is important as having large social networks is good for cognitive activity. Being antisocial on the other hand may actually be a driver of Alzheimer’s. In other words keep lots of friends and keep those networks operating.

Diet is important. Studies suggest the Mediterranean diet reduce the risks of progression to Alzheimer’s disease. There are some conflicting evidence for antioxidants but modest wine intake may be of some benefit.

Sir Richard told us that hearing loss has an association with dementia.

The most important thing is to enjoy life in moderation stop

Sir Richard told us about a brain research project which has been set up by way of partnership between the various universities and medical schools through the country. It is bringing together all brain scientists in New Zealand to see if they can slow down the ageing process in the brain. Research centres are located in Christchurch Dunedin and Auckland. The object of the research is to see what markers there are that will predict whether or not they will show changes suggesting early Alzheimer’s and to see if different interventions can slow things down.

The aim is to slow the progression of the disease rather than prevent it although that is the long term goal.

 Sir Richards address was interesting stimulating and important. It’s not all doom and gloom so keep fit keep that active social network together and keep working on those crosswords, those chess games and you may well slow down or avoid Alzheimer’s.

 Thank you Sir Richard for an enjoyable and thought-provoking address