Dr. Henrich: Studies of Alzheimer’s and brain diseases vital for Texas

Alzheimer's Disease

The following guest column appeared in the San Antonio Express-News on Jan. 14.

By William L. Henrich, M.D., MACP

“The brain is the organ of destiny. It holds within its humming mechanism secrets that will determine the future of the human race.” — Wilder Penfield, American-Canadian neurosurgeon (1891-1976)

The healthy brain solves problems, triumphs over adversity, paints works of art and composes sonatas. When the brain is diseased or injured, by contrast, the toll is devastating. Ask the caregivers of Alzheimer’s disease patients. Ask the war veterans haunted by traumatic flashbacks. Ask the senior adults who miss living independently.

On behalf of our communities and courageous families, UT Health San Antonio is waging an unprecedented initiative to understand, prevent and treat brain diseases, particularly those related to aging. Aging is, overwhelmingly, the No. 1 risk factor for the top causes of death, including dementia and other brain impairments. About 1 in 7 adults in Texas is 65 and older, and by 2050 this figure is expected to increase to 1 in 5.

This offensive on brain diseases is propelled by the university’s Healthy Brain Consortium, which marshals effort in multiple arenas.

The Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, a world-recognized center at UT Health San Antonio, is expanding the knowledge frontier in the biology of aging and taking laboratory discoveries to patients.

The Barshop Institute brings together the world’s leading scientists in aging and longevity research, and provides them with the latest research technologies. The institute’s mission is to help our aging population live with strength and vitality throughout life, growing older with vigor and without disability.

Our Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases is the first comprehensive center in South Texas dedicated to study and treat dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. With 1 in 10 people age 65 and older being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, we moved to establish this institute in 2017.

Because of economic factors, neurologists who treat dementia are in short supply both in San Antonio and rural South Texas. A place like the Biggs Institute can provide expert diagnosis (after careful evaluation) and comprehensive care for people with dementia and their care partners.

The presence of the Biggs Institute positions UT Health San Antonio to be at the forefront of biomedical discoveries that could save the state billions of dollars in health care expenses. Multiple close collaborations between the Biggs and Barshop institutes are leading to new medications that will be tested in 2019 in human trials. These findings could improve the quality of life for the growing number of senior adults in Texas who will face a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairment.

STRONG STAR, the world’s largest research group focused on combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions, plays a key role in our Healthy Brain Consortium. More than 125 researchers and clinicians at institutions nationwide who work with STRONG STAR are conducting a broad array of clinical, exploratory and preclinical trials to assess delivery of evidence-based PTSD treatments. These methods have been specially adapted to meet the unique needs of service members and veterans.

The psychiatry department in our Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine is another strong Healthy Brain Consortium contributor. The department’s experts bring significant expertise in neuroscience research and extensive experience in patient care.

Our Military Health Institute supports the consortium by enhancing our interactions with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and with local, state and federal governments and nongovernmental organizations.

The Texas Legislature two years ago provided $9 million for the Barshop Institute. We are deeply grateful for this support. During the 2019 legislative session, UT Health San Antonio is requesting enhanced state funding of $12.5 million, which would bring total state investment to $21.5 million over the next biennium to expand the infrastructure of the Barshop and Biggs institutes and support the Healthy Brain Consortium.

We are making this request for the people of Texas. Helping individuals and families affected by brain diseases and injuries is not just a worthy cause — it will be our families’ lifeline.


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