Links That Build A Neuroscience Powerhouse

A tidal wave is coming and it has nothing to do with planetary conditions.

Physicians who treat the human brain know that as the American population ages, the rapid rise in neurodegenerative diseases in this country will stress the healthcare system like nothing has to date. Physician and neuroscientist Howard Federoff, MD, PhD, executive vice president for health sciences at Georgetown University Medical Center, likens the near future to a “silver tsunami” when “many, many millions of people will have diseases that are going to be both extremely costly from a health care economic perspective, but even more problematic from a societal point of view.”

The list of these maladies is long — everything from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, to a cornucopia of other neurodegenerative disorders, to stroke, and traumatic injuries to the brain. “By the middle of the century they will become the most important clinical problems that we face as a society — a burden greater than even cancer,” Federoff says.

So two years ago, Federoff convened a medical center-wide strategic planning initiative to look, in part, at how GUMC could help effectively manage this medical “scourge” along with others that affect the American and global population. That led to a white paper that posited a future strategy wherein GUMC could mobilize its considerable expertise in neurology and neuroscience, both basic and clinical, to find a way to dam the coming tide.

This summer, as product of that planning, GUMC announced the creation of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery. The Center, a partnership between Georgetown University and MedStar National Rehabilitation Network, marks the launch of a rare research entity that is designed to rapidly move basic and translational science into the care of patients with brain disorders. The goal is to re-establish functionality in these patients by understanding, and then utilizing, the ability of the brain to repair itself.

“We want to restore the normal developmental neuroplasticity in adults who have suffered neurologic injury,” Federoff says. The Center’s first focus is stroke, which strikes someone in the U.S. every 45 seconds — 700,000 Americans annually.

While it took a group of thinkers to come up with the idea and the design of the Center, Federoff singles out one member as “absolutely essential all along the way in many regards.” Ed Healton, MD, MPH, a professor of neurology and rehabilitation at GUMC, functioned like an experienced conductor to a new orchestra playing music never heard before, Federoff says.

Neurology faculty doubles; new Centers are created

Healton demurs. “I have been swept along with the fantastic advances in brain science and all of the opportunities ahead.”

Healton came to Washington D.C. from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2000, after 32 years of clinical, academic, and administrative management. He had served as clinical professor of neurology, senior associate dean and assistant vice president at Columbia and medical director at Harlem Hospital Center.

He had a double appointment. At MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (MedStar NRH), which is part of the MedStar Health System, Healton eventually became senior vice president of medical affairs and medical director for MedStar NRH, part of a network of inpatient and outpatient services at more than 30 sites in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. At GUMC and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital (MedStar GUH), Healton focused his academic experience on the development of neuroscience clinical and research programs in the departments of neurology and rehabilitation medicine.

Healton took over as chair of neurology at GUMC in 2005, and within six years, he had doubled the size of neurology faculty to 40. In July 2011, he devoted his efforts principally to Georgetown as chair of both neurology and rehabilitation medicine while sustaining his leadership role as director of the research center at MedStar NRH.

So when the strategic planning process began to look at the future of neurology and neuroscience at GUMC, Healton facilitated a connection that would allow for a perfect clinical match for GUMC. His idea was that Georgetown research and translational science aimed at understanding and restoring brain function would find a natural home in a hospital and network that is devoted to medical rehabilitation.

“He helped us understand that the National Rehabilitation Hospital is the perfect clinical partner for us,” says Federoff. “He made that possible.”

“I was fortunate to sit in the middle as a facilitator,” Healton says.

“MedStar NRH, the medical center and MedStar GUH have really made neurosciences an explicit priority — an area of distinction for these institutions — and they have well supported its growth and development,” he says.

“We know now that the brain has an intrinsic ability to recover from injury, and we are understanding how that happens on a cellular, molecular and functional level,” Healton says. And at MedStar NRH, patients will have access to novel treatments — care that will be on the cutting edge of medicine in neuroscience carried out by the elite scientists at GUMC and MedStar NRH, he says.

The department of neurology that Healton leads houses new faculty appointed to the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, such as its director, Elissa Newport, PhD and Peter Turkeltaub, MD, PhD. It will also provide a home for faculty in another new center created this summer --the first Huntington Disease Center in the Washington, DC area. A new epilepsy center is also in the planning. These centers will represent unprecedented collaborations from brain researchers across GUMC and Georgetown, including linguistics, foreign languages, psychology and philosophy, in addition to neurosciences and psychiatry.

“Restoring brain function is going to be absolutely essential to be able to return these individuals to being productive members of our society,” Federoff says. “This is a scientifically rich problem that will require substantial new discovery and much innovation, at every level. We will need computational neuroscientists, neuroimaging experts, neuropsychologists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, and probably even material scientists to devise ways to put things into the brain using modalities that currently don’t exist.”

“Our goal is simply to become one of the best departments of neurology in the country, and we are moving in that direction, with the help of MedStar NRH,” Healton says. “These are good years for brain science — and brain recovery.”

By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications
(Published Setp. 12, 2012)