Protecting Our Brains

As much as we may appreciate our heart, lungs, liver, skin, and so on, there’s something special about the profound connection we have to our brain. Our personality, self-determination, language, knowledge, and memory all reside there, somewhere in that intricate walnut of connections and electrical impulses.

As we age, we become acutely aware that brain health is not a given. Very few of us will be so fortunate as to live our lives without being touched in some way by a mental disorder—like depression, anxiety, or substance abuse—or by a degenerative one—like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s disease; or frontotemporal, vascular, or Lewy body dementia (to name only the most common). The cost of Alzheimer’s disease alone—emotional, intellectual, functional, financial—is staggering. Even if these disorders do not directly touch us or our families, we will feel the ripples other ways: patient loads, healthcare costs, and demands on our societal infrastructure. That’s why the Medical School is deeply involved in brain health in many ways. Here is a snapshot of our activities and goals.

The best approach to brain health is prevention and there are many efforts aimed at giving children’s brains the best chance for a good start. Importantly, many of these efforts are interconnected to amplify their effectiveness.

  • Collaboration with the Itasca Project, which focuses on early childhood and early intervention for success in adult life. The Adoption Medicine Clinic directed by Dr. Judith Eckerle focuses on the impact of adoption on mental, emotional, and physical health.

    • Birth to Three Clinic and Early Childhood Mental Health Program, which works with patients who have faced early adversity and toxic stress, is led by Dr. Maria Kroupina in collaboration with the Center for Neurobehavioral Development.
    • Drs. Sarah Cusick, Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, Raghu Rao and Michael K Georgieff, who are prominent advocates for improving nutrition for brain development in the first 1000 days of life (including prior to birth). 
    • At the Institute of Child Development, we are teaming with the College of Education and Human Development to create the Institute for Child and Adolescent Brains.
  • The Department of Psychiatry, led by Dr. Sophia Vinogradov, in collaboration with colleagues in Neuroscience, Institute of Health Informatics, and Psychology, offers a panoply of programs in childhood, adolescent, and family therapy, including neuropsychology with Dr. David Redish in Neuroscience. Through their work, they are developing the Center for Neuroplasticity Research in Support of Mental Health (Neuro-PRSMH).

For the many disorders that affect adults, we have extensive resources focused on discovery and cure, with all of our Medical Discovery Teams (MDTs) focused on some aspect of brain health, including:

  • In Duluth, the Health Disparities MDT, called Memory Keepers, and led by Dr. J Neil Henderson, is focused on the impact of diabetes and vascular health on dementia.
  • Dr. Kamil Ugurbil’s MDT is using optical imaging to develop a map of brain connectivity—collaborating on the Human Connectome Project through the Center for Magnetic Resonance Research (CMRR).
  • Dr. Timothy Ebner currently leads the Addiction MDT with neuroscience and neurobiology approaches focusing on addiction’s impact on the brain.
  • The Department of Neurology—a Udall Center of Excellence for Parkinson’s Disease Research—directed by Dr. Jerrold Vitek are leaders in neuromodulation of movement and psychiatric disorders through deep brain stimulation.
  • Under Dr. Harry Orr, The Institute for Translational Neuroscience includes a team of researchers from Neuroscience, Neurology, Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, and Radiology working on devastating neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and the cerebellar ataxias.

The health of the aging brain is being researched and treated on many fronts.

  • The Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism (iBAM), led by Dr. Laura Niedernhofer, and the MDT on Aging led jointly by Dr. Niedernhofer and Dr. Paul Robbins, is focusing on senescence—improving health by clearing damaged cells from the body and brain.
  • In Neurology, Dr. Karen Ashe has long been a pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research and leads the N. Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care.
  • Department of Family Medicine and Community Health is led by a geriatrician, Dr. James Pacala. Recently, the Otto Bremer Trust invested $1 million in the Geriatrics Care Program, which will educate and train health professionals in core geriatric principles.

So why have I given you a laundry list of Medical School efforts in brain health (anything I missed, please let me know via the Feedback button below)? The challenges of this one area—brain health—demonstrate how many different researchers, specialties, collaborations, and efforts must come together to find compassionate and bold responses to them. We are uniquely positioned, with the depth of resources in the Medical School and across the University and the team approach we are cultivating, to take these challenges on.

When you think about your aging brain (which is an interesting idea in itself), remember that there are a number of things we can do every day to take care of it and to nurture its neuroplasticity. Our efforts to improve wellbeing and job satisfaction are important to reducing damaging stress and inflammation. If you are teaching, then you are stretching your brain every day as you match wits with other people and you reinforce your own knowledge by sharing it. Learning something new and complex—a piece of music, a language, square dance (exercise is important, too), knitting, painting—anything that creates new neural connections or strengthens existing ones, is good. Perhaps most fulfilling on all levels, nurturing our long-term relationships and creating meaning from our existence at any age may be one of the best defenses to prevent and manage dementia.

We have great brains here at this University and in the Medical School. Know that we are working hard to keep them healthy, powerful, and functioning well as long as possible.