Alzheimer's disease researchers expressed sadness this week at the sudden death of Larry Sparks, senior scientist at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute, Sun City, Arizona, at the age of 63. Sparks worked in Sun City from 1997. Sparks championed the idea that high plasma cholesterol increases the risk for Alzheimer's pathology in the brain. "Larry relished to be the out-of-the box, lone thinker," said Banner colleague Marwan Sabbagh. "Larry didn't follow trends, but stuck to his own observations and what he wanted to do. That was his niche and his strength," said Sabbagh.
That philosophy led Sparks to make a connection between myocardial infarction and AD. He noticed that people who died from heart disease were more likely to have amyloid pathology in the brain on autopsy. "He had some novel ideas about the relationship between heart disease and AD, and the role of lipids and cholesterol," said Neil Buckholtz, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Maryland.
Sparks got his PhD in 1982 in Buckholtz's lab at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. "Larry was then, as he continued to be, an enthusiastic scientist with ideas not always in the mainstream. I have to admit there were some stormy times, and I was not always sure he was going to get his degree," recollected Buckholtz. "I am glad he did, because during his research career over the next 31 years, he made a real contribution to Alzheimer’s disease research."
Sparks oversaw one of the first clinical trials to test if cholesterol-lowering statins could benefit people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's (see ARF related news story). People who took atorvastatin over one year tended to have less cognitive decline, though the results lacked statistical significance. Sparks was also intrigued by the potential role of copper in Alzheimer's and reported that even small amounts of the metal exacerbated pathology in rabbits fed high-cholesterol diets (see ARF related news story).
Sparks was a veteran of the Vietnam war. He passed away last Sunday, a few days after suffering a brainstem hemorrhage. "He had been planning for his retirement in about a year and a half," said Sabbagh. "He will be missed."—Tom Fagan.