McKnight Brain Institute Highlights Research and Education Accomplishments

The Board of Trustees of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation returned to the Miller School of Medicine last week for an update on the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute’s ongoing and new research into the causes and treatment of age-related cognitive disorders of the brain.

Welcoming the trustees to the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute’s fourth program update on February 20, Miller School Dean Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., said the institute, established in 2008 with a $5 million foundation grant, continues to explore vascular cognitive impairment, with an emphasis on modifiable risk factors, and neurodegenerative diseases that commonly affect older adults.

“I don’t think there is an issue that is more important in the 21st century than to deal with changes that happen in the brain, particularly as it relates to one of its weakest functions, memory,” said the Dean, who is also Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and CEO of UHealth. “I congratulate the board and foundation for its focus on this issue.’’

Ralph L. Sacco, M.D., M.S., professor and Chair of Neurology, the Olemberg Family Chair in Neurological Disorders, and Executive Director of the institute, and Clinton Wright, M.D., M.S., the institute’s Scientific Director and Director of the Division of Cognitive Disorders,
moderated updates on, respectively, the Northern Manhattan Study (NOMAS), and the Evelyn F. McKnight Clinical and Biorepository Registry.

Sacco brought the NOMAS project, a study funded for the past 21 years by the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to focus on stroke risk factors and cognitive decline in a diverse community, from Columbia University to Miami when he joined the Miller School in 2007. Wright, who also was involved in NOMAS at Columbia, helped establish the clinic-based registry in 2010 with Elizabeth Crocco, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and Director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Training Program, to provide epidemiologic, cognitive, and brain imaging data from patients at the Miller School’s state-funded Memory Disorder Clinic at the Center on Aging.

Echoing the Dean, Sacco and Wright also emphasized how far the McKnight Brain Institute extends beyond the neurology department, encompassing researchers and collaborators across the University in such diverse fields as psychiatry and behavioral sciences, genetics, radiology, engineering and psychology.

“Many centers are involved and they may be involved on a research level, they may be involved on an education level or a clinical care level, but they are all integrally related,” Wright said, adding that the institute’s educational mission is as important as its research mission. “You can’t just look at one of them by itself. They all interact.”

In addition to presentations on NOMAS and the registry, the trustees heard reports highlighting the breadth and scope of the institute’s work, including an update on MRI and cognitive assessment standardization across institutes, a look at education research and a fascinating overview of the research under way in the institute’s new Animal Behavior Core.

Under the leadership of Miguel Perez-Pinzon, Ph.D., professor of neurology, Vice Chair for Basic Science Research and head of the Cerebrovascular Research Lab, the core has developed a rodent model to examine the effects of vascular damage on behavior. Sitting in the audience with other faculty and students, Claes Wahlestedt, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and Associate Dean for Therapeutic Innovation, called the model “elegant.”

Founded in 1999, The Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Research Foundation supports research aimed at understanding how aging influences memory. A nurse, Evelyn McKnight and her husband William, chairman of the board of the 3M Corp. for 59 years before his 1979 death, were long interested in brain research and memory loss. Their commitment continues through the foundation, which in addition to UM’s brain institute supports sister institutes at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the University of Arizona at Tucson, and the University of Florida.

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