Innovative collaborations might eventually lead to cures for the most challenging degenerative brain diseases.
In terms of life span, 60 is the new 40, and while still noteworthy, living past 100 is no longer the extraordinary achievement it was a century ago. Still, while longevity looks good on paper, most people say they fear losing mental capacity far more than they fear diminished physical ability as they age.
Eliminating the need for that fear is central to the mission of the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, affectionately known as MAC. The brainchild of Bruce Miller, MD (above) – and part of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences – MAC brings together innovative scientists and clinicians to offer compassionate, cutting-edge care to men and women with cognitive problems and find cures for the most challenging degenerative brain diseases.
Miller’s own pioneering research focuses on a family of diseases known as frontotemporal dementia (FTD). In 2002, he was the first investigator to receive funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the clinical features of FTD. Now recognized as the third most common dementia in people age 65 and older – and the second most common in people under age 65 – FTD’s early symptoms, which often manifest as behavioral changes, can make it easy to overlook.
As a behavioral neurologist, Miller was quick to recognize patients’ distinctive emotional and social changes as early symptoms of the most common form of FTD. That breakthrough led to a much broader search to identify causes of, and treatments for, FTD. Now, scientists at MAC are looking specifically at FTD symptoms for clues that may lead to new therapeutics.
Neurologist William Seeley, MD ’99, is one of MAC's most determined and innovative scientists. A MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Miller protégé, Seeley’s research centers on selective vulnerability. By understanding what makes some neurons more susceptible to attack than others, Seeley’s lab hopes to find new treatments for FTD and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
What makes their research more powerful is that Miller and Seeley are part of the team of clinician-scientists who treat some 3,000 MAC patients annually, many of whom also volunteer as MAC research participants. Miller and Seeley know that their patients might hold the answers to crucial questions about brain diseases – and that they anxiously await the next treatments to emerge from the lab.
Bruce Miller is the A.W. and Mary Margaret Clausen Distinguished Professor of Neurology.