June 10, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Israeli, Palestinian and US academics, doctors and students took part in an unusual three-day international conference on Alzheimer’s hosted by Hebrew University and Al Quds Palestinian University recently. Organizers hope more events like this will follow.

“I am fighting the anti-Israel boycott in academia and science by doing the opposite,” says Mark Gluck, professor of Neuroscience at Rutgers University-Newark. “Any boycott of Israeli research would not only stifle Israel’s enormous ongoing contributions to biomedical research, but hurt Palestinian healthcare as well,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

To prove his point, Gluck and his colleagues at The Hebrew University and Al Quds Palestinian University organized a three-day international conference on Alzheimer’s recently, their second US-Israeli-Palestinian Brain Research Conference.

With intense planning over the last three years, the organizers were able to host about 25 Palestinian students, doctors, and university faculty, at the conference’s scientific sessions in Jerusalem in May. This meeting followed a similar, but smaller jointly hosted conference they organized on Parkinson’s disease in 2005.

While some of the Palestinians already had permits to work in Israeli hospitals, Gluck and Dr. Hermona Soreq, dean of Hebrew University’s Givat Ram Campus, spent months working with Israeli authorities to arrange entry for over a dozen Palestinians from the West Bank who normally are not able to enter Israel freely.

The conference participants – from Israel, the Middle East, Europe and America — also journeyed to Al Qud’s University in Abu Dis, a suburb of Jerusalem in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority, for their final day of the meeting.

Gluck, encouraged with the promise of ongoing future collaboration, says: “What was special is that we had an important international scientific meeting with many of the best people from around the world, and it was jointly hosted and organized by Israelis and Palestinians.”

While Israelis travel to Europe or America for conferences regularly, it is not common for Israelis and Palestinians to organize conferences together. Gluck is hoping to help change that.

In addition to these conferences, American-born Gluck has a mission to set up a new Middle East Collaborative Research Consortium on Brain Disorders to benefit the entire region and its unique population.

He explains some of the challenges of studying brain disorders in the Palestinian communities. For example, he notes that there is a need, for “new language-independent and culture-appropriate tests of intelligence, memory, and attention, which can be used here, especially with the large percent of the rural population that is illiterate.”

In the US and Israel, he explains, a standard test for dementia is to ask someone if they know what day of the week it is. However, “in many rural Arab villages,” Gluck reports, “even healthy people often don’t distinguish the days of the week other than Friday (for prayers).”

In a few weeks Gluck, who is a visiting scientist at The Hebrew University, will be back in the United States where he hopes to continue building on the momentum set in motion at the conference.

“Now that we’ve shown that such a jointly-hosted and jointly-attended meeting can be done, there is a precedent for everyone to try it again,” says Gluck.

Meanwhile, an Arabic-speaking postdoctoral fellow from Gluck’s lab at Rutgers will remain behind in Israel for the summer to train a team of Israeli and Palestinian students to work together to study Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases in both Israeli and Palestinian communities. Working with Gluck and his colleagues at Rutgers University, they hope to advance our ability to diagnose and treat these diseases, which are serious health threats to all communities everywhere.

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Jason Harris

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