This story was published by the San Antonio Express-News on Sept. 15, 2021.
By Laura Garcia, Staff writer
More than 100 donated brains are carefully stored at UT Health Science Center San Antonio, where researchers hope they can help solve one of mankind’s deepest medical mysteries — how the brain works.
Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a neurology professor and founding director of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, said the brain bank may help advance clinical treatments to slow deterioration of cognitive ability and improve quality of life for millions of people.
Through genetic testing of brains and spinal cord tissue, the institute’s staff can learn more about what diseases the people who had them died from and whether they can be passed on genetically.
“One of the unique things about our brain bank is that we are not focused on any one disease. We will gratefully accept donations from a person who was cognitively healthy,” Seshadri said.
Donating a loved one’s brain doesn’t cost a family anything and need not delay funeral arrangements, she said. “This is such a precious gift, and we treat it as such.”
UT Health San Antonio and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley have partnered to create the South Texas Alzheimer’s Disease Center, which is now a National Institute on Aging-designated Alzheimer’s disease research center.
The brain bank played a big part in earning the designation, as did the location of the collaborating educational institutions.
Gaining the National Institute on Aging’s backing is key, given that Texas has the second-highest number of deaths related to Alzheimer’s disease and a Hispanic population that is among the fastest-growing demographic segments in the U.S., Seshadri said.
“This federal designation by NIA will be transformational,” she said, “as we seek cures and provide the best possible care, based on the most up-to-date knowledge and technology, to the families of South Texas and throughout our state.”
UT Health and UT Rio Grande Valley’s center is the only one in Texas to join 32 other centers in a national network that the NIA established in 1984 to promote research collaboration, encourage data sharing and offer information and clinical trials for patients and families affected by Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
Being an Alzheimer’s disease research center also comes with a significant boost in funding — up to $14.8 million from the NIA, which is under the National Institutes of Health, over the next five years. Seshadri said it also ensures the South Texas Alzheimer’s Disease Center’s work will be “part of the national conversation.”
UT Health San Antonio established the Glenn Biggs Institute with Seshadri’s hiring in December 2017. A couple of years earlier, the institution raised more than $40 million from the community for a comprehensive center to serve families affected by Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Gladys Maestre, a UTRGV professor of neurosciences, is director of the Rio Grande Valley Alzheimer´s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research, the first federally funded Center of Excellence at the university.
Maestre said there’s a growing group of diverse researchers studying the disproportionate health and economic burdens of Alzheimer’s disease among Hispanic people, and she hopes to accelerate cutting-edge research programs, interventions and health care services for the prevention, care and treatment of dementia tailored to Hispanics and health care providers in the region.
Seshadri, who is a physician-researcher, likes being able to offer her patients the chance to participate in clinical trials.
“I would also like to offer some hope,” she said. “There is currently only some medication that tries to slow down the pace of the disease, but with multidimensional care, we are often able to help people maintain their quality of life and do the things they want to do. And that’s our goal really.”
She points to legendary singer Tony Bennett, who still sings beautifully despite being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“I’m very hopeful that over the next 10 years, the important thing will be for us to study people who have not been studied before — like Hispanics, especially if they have a family history because there are many things we can learn from that and ultimately prevent the loss of memory if we can predict and start treatment early.”