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Desert Companion

Brain trust

Maybe Frank Gehry is to blame. Surely you’ve driven by the architect’s stately, imposing meringue of stainless steel that houses the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Surely you’ve gazed upon it with vague admiration for those hard-working whitecoats inside, ensconced in their labs, researching brain disease in what seems like an island of titanium. Or maybe an ivory tower.

You’re not alone in thinking this. An informal poll of my colleagues and friends reveals that many still see the Ruvo Center as some self-contained bastion of academic medicine. It seems that grand reputations — that of a renowned architect and that of a renowned medical institution — have aligned to eclipse a perhaps more important, but less glamorous, story about the Ruvo Center. Certainly, the center’s world-class brain experts are leading the way in understanding how neurodegenerative diseases do their dark work, whether it’s how Alzheimer’s eats away memories — essentially, our very identities — or how multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease rob us of control of our own bodies. This is the institution that may just unlock a cure, especially with the recent addition of programs in MS and Parkinson’s. However, banish from your mind any impression that the Ruvo Center is some isolated garret of pure research. The story beneath the story is how the Ruvo Center is also a thoroughly service-minded community asset that is meant to be used. Its prestige, though well-deserved, obscures what the Ruvo Center can do — and is doing for us now.

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“We’re meant to be a resource for the community,” says Dr. Ryan Walsh, director of center’s new Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Program. “I want people to know that if it comes down to nothing else, our first priority is top-notch clinical care.” Walsh’s own research has been instrumental in furthering a new understanding of what different brain diseases have in common rather than what sets them apart, fueling a collaborative approach to conquering these diseases. And it helps when leading authorities on Alzheimer’s and MS are just a videoconference away — or just down the hall.

Meanwhile, Dr. Timothy West, director of Ruvo Center’s MS program, also new, is an authority in his field as well. “Our motto is that every life deserves world-class care, and that permeates from the top down,” says West. “To be sure, research is important, and it’s especially important when it improves the therapies we can offer.” West’s mother suffers from multiple sclerosis, so for him, clinical care has a personal dimension.

I recently did the grand Ruvo Center tour. I found not only a hive humming with exciting research initiatives, but also a service center for anyone suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. In most cases without a referral, sufferers can go in for physical evaluations, memory testing, brain MRIs, medication, cognitive rehab, physical exercise and psychiatric care. Caregivers and family members with loved ones suffering from a degenerative brain disease can get support, counseling and advice, or bone up at the center’s growing lending library that brings together a wealth of books, films and other media that represent the latest information on brain disease.

Perhaps best of all, those suffering from a neurodegenerative disease can not only get help for themselves; they can contribute to finding a cure by volunteering for a clinical trial. For example, the center is currently inviting those diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease to participate in clinical trials that examine whether exercise can slow or even reverse Parkinson’s symptoms. Alzheimer’s patients can help by joining a study of an experimental vaccine. The Ruvo Center may look like a shining island of medical wisdom — and it is. But look closer, and you’ll see a lot of bridges to that island.

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