Brain, Nerve, and Muscle Health
Discover what’s possible. Browse these features to find out more about the impact of University of Minnesota research, education, and care—and how you can help.
Up until about four years ago, Mike Fahning thought of his Parkinson's disease as an irritant. His medications seemed to be managing the involuntary movements that are a hallmark of the disease, with which he was diagnosed at age 38. But one Sunday in 2010, Fahning was at home doing housework when suddenly he couldn't move. His medications had worn off, and he was stuck. Though Fahning wasn't familiar with the term at the time, he was experiencing "freezing of gait," a complication of Parkinson's disease that is simply described as a temporary and involuntary inability to move.
David Bond, M.D., Ph.D., has spent his professional life delving into problems that lie deep within the human brain. Having recently completed his Ph.D. in neuroscience, and with in-depth experience in both clinical treatment for people who have bipolar disorder and research into brain malfunctions, Bond proved to be an unbeatable candidate to lead the University's new Bipolar Disorder Clinic, which is scheduled to open this summer.
Dick Huston, D.V.M., and his wife, Glenda, were so passionate about education that, years ago, they established scholarships at nine different colleges, including the University of Minnesota. After Glenda died suddenly in 2010, her careful estate planning resulted in not just a substantial increase for the Glenda Taylor Huston Scholarship of Courage at the U but also funds to support bipolar disorder research at the institution.
By the time Milton Oran arrived at the University of Minnesota-affiliated Neurosurgery Clinic in early October 2013, he was in so much pain that he could barely speak. The 88-year-old Oran, a retired mechanical engineer, had been diagnosed four years earlier with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic disorder of the facial nerve. In its classic form, trigeminal neuralgia causes intense, sudden electric shock-like pain. Oran's condition had been kept largely under control with medication, but the nerve had started acting up, this time more severely than ever.
Little Lydia Kohler's parents were horrified when a large, blood-filled sac in the back of their newborn daughter's head caused her to have a massive seizure, a result of heart failure. But thanks to an innovative treatment by a collaborative University of Minnesota team -- and a strategic use of glue -- little Lydia today is a running, talking, 2-year-old whirlwind, her parents happily report.
When Brad Wallin helped to announce his family's generous gift to create the Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund at the University of Minnesota in 2011, he said, "It will be exciting to see what unfolds." Two years later, we can see exactly what's unfolded -- and it is quite remarkable.
There are no real treatment options for people who have ataxia -- no real course of action other than coping with symptoms of the neurodegenerative condition, which can include difficulties with balance, coordination, speech, and sometimes vision. But today researchers at the University of Minnesota are on a path to change that reality.
Imagine a road map connecting every one of Earth's 7.1 billion people -- and showing how each of those people is connected to the 300 or so people he or she knows. Now imagine 11 more identical maps, crumple them all up, stuff them into a cantaloupe, and try to read them. Now you'll begin to have an idea of the complexity of the "human connectome," as researchers refer to a comprehensive map of neural connections in the brain.
Don't be mistaken: Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are distinct neurodegenerative diseases. Both involve the death of neurons, but the primary cells affected are different. But as scientists are learning more about Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, they're discovering that the diseases' pathological pathways in the brain have much more in common than was previously believed.
It seems that psychotherapy research has taken a backseat to pharmaceutical research in recent years. After all, it's comparatively easy to quantify the effectiveness of pharmaceuticals: count the milligrams, measure the drug in the blood, and then correlate the data to an outcome. But some, including Stephen Setterberg, M.D., are concerned by this trend.
When Apple, Inc., cofounder Steve Jobs paid $100,000 to have his DNA sequenced in a bid to outrun the pancreatic cancer that ultimately claimed his life, he was just one of 20 people in the entire world to have had it done. But for the general public, the benefits of DNA sequencing, which has been both time-consuming and costly, have remained largely unattainable. Until now.
On a chilly Minnesota evening last December, 16-year-old Tiffany Cowan sat uncomplainingly in Room 242 of the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Memorial Building as two graduate students from the University’s Brain Plasticity Laboratory carefully attached a series of wires to her scalp and right arm.
Twenty years ago, while studying classical guitar at the University of Minnesota, Dean Harrington lost the fine motor control in the “plucking” fingers of his right hand. Soon he also found that he could no longer type efficiently on a computer and that his right forefinger would spontaneously click the mouse at inappropriate times.
Parkinson’s. Alzheimer’s. Schizophrenia. Stroke. Depression. These and a host of other debilitating neurological diseases afflict one in five Americans, at a staggering economic and social cost. But University of Minnesota neuroscientists expect to reduce that burden with advances in neuromodulation — treatments, such as deep brain stimulation, that change the activity of brain circuits.
Betty Jayne Dahlberg of Deephaven, Minn., has seen the devastating effects of brain cancer firsthand. Her late son-in-law, James “Jimmy” Disbrow, lived with glioblastoma for four years before he died in 2002 at age 54. Disbrow suffered a great deal in those four years—despite valiant attempts to arrest his cancer through experimental therapies. He was an award-winning figure skater, a career he pursued until 1982, when he founded the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant company with his brother. Dahlberg says she does not want others to endure a similar ordeal, and she has a special concern for children who suffer from brain cancer.
When Leaetta Hough talks about her late mother, Hazel Hough, she emphasizes the courage and grace with which she endured the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease for more than 35 years. That’s why, when Hough asked her mother what she would like done in her honor after her death, she rejected the idea of having a building named for her in her hometown of Bagley, Minn. Instead, Hazel supported Hough’s proposal to contribute money to Parkinson’s disease research at the University of Minnesota.
Consider the mind-bending truth about the human eye: with an estimated 2 million working parts that allow us to absorb images of the world around us in fractions of a second, the intricate mechanism is second only to the brain itself in complexity.
When things go wrong, however, the impact on a human life can range from annoying to devastating, with total blindness the ultimate insult. But scientists in the University of Minnesota’s recently renamed Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Neurosciences (OVNS) take up the fight daily, battling their way from questions and problems to answers and treatments.
A famous reporter was once advised to “follow the money.” Here at the University of Minnesota, tracing the journey of a $25,000 gift from Liz Hawn and her husband, Van, on its path through the Department of Neuroscience is a perfect case in point for how private donations can reignite critical research—and, ultimately, become the gift that keeps on giving.
Sometimes, it’s the quietest voice that speaks most resoundingly. So it is with many of the University of Minnesota’s donors, who, without fanfare, step up to support small research projects bent on delivering big results.
Many of these projects aren’t of the headline-yielding variety, but rather they’re studies focused on one specific aspect of a disease. The Frank and Eleanor Maslowski Charitable Trust’s recent $140,000 gift to the University’s Paul and Sheila Wellstone Muscular Dystrophy Center to fund a small study on bone health in boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a perfect case in point.
A former college baseball player, Brian Kraft just wasn’t seeing the ball quite like he used to. While playing recreational softball five years post-college, he felt too clumsy—like his skills were diminishing faster than they should.
“I was just thinking there was something not right with me,” he says.
Seventy-five years ago, physicians couldn't rely on a CT or MRI scan to help diagnose and treat brain and nervous system diseases. Surgery often focused on immediate, practical needs, and the technology was crude. Even then, however, the diagnostic and surgical skills required for neurologic diseases differed drastically from those of general surgery. "It became increasingly difficult for general surgeons and neurosurgeons to cover for each other and provide each other the disciplinary support they needed," explains Stephen Haines, M.D., head of neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota today.
Department of Neurosurgery chair Stephen Haines, M.D., often chats with the neurosurgery training program's oldest living graduate—his own father, a retired neurosurgeon who lives in upstate New York. Because the neurosurgery program has played such a key role in both Haineses’ lives, the two men wanted to give something back.
Support research into brain, nerve, and muscle disorders at the University of Minnesota and receive steady income for life with a charitable gift annuity. Through a simple contract, you agree to make a donation of cash, stocks, or other assets to the Minnesota Medical Foundation. In return, we agree to pay you a fixed amount each year for the rest of your life.
Sufferers of Parkinson's disease, ataxia, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder take note: University of Minnesota scientists have taken an important leap forward in their effort to understand disorders that they believe are caused by faulty wiring deep in the brain. Center for Magnetic Resonance Research imaging expert Noam Harel, Ph.D., is in the spotlight after publishing research results in January about how, for the first time, he and his colleagues successfully mapped neural connections in the human basal ganglia.
In the fight against ataxia, the University of Minnesota sits at ground zero. Nowhere else in the world do all the pieces—research, education, clinical treatment, and fundraising—come together as they do in the Twin Cities, where both the National Ataxia Foundation (NAF) and the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center (BAARC) are based. These organizations have long provided critical support for ataxia research at the University, where Institute for Translational Neuroscience director Harry T. Orr, Ph.D., has spent the past 25 years moving the fight forward. NAF and BAARC recently joined forces to provide Orr and his team with $100,000 to fund research focused on developing a drug to treat spinocerebellar ataxia type 1.
University of Minnesota scientists hope that two new studies will enhance understanding of the underlying causes of Parkinson's disease, potentially leading to the development of new drug therapies and treatment options for patients. In one study, neuroscientist Michael Lee, Ph.D., and his colleagues examined one of the obvious causes of the progression of Parkinson's: dying neurons in the patient's brain.
The late Winston Wallin was keen to invest in promising but untested ideas. Today, University of Minnesota neuroscientists like Kenneth Baker, Ph.D., hope to benefit from Wallin’s belief that it’s worth taking a risk to nurture great potential. Baker is one of four University researchers who got a boost to their work with one of the first Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund awards, which were distributed over the winter.
Karen Frigstad first heard the word "ataxia" was when she was diagnosed with the disease in 1999. She had no idea what impact it would have on her future. Now, more than a decade later, she knows. But Frigstad isn't letting the degenerative disease define her. She and her family have found hope in the University of Minnesota's Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center.
Since he and his colleagues identified the gene responsible for spinocerebellar ataxia type 1 (SCA1) 18 years ago, Harry Orr, Ph.D., has not tired in his pursuit of a cure.
Orr's team, after cloning the SCA1 gene and developing animal models to understand how ataxia affects the body, is reaching another turning point in its work—developing several promising drug compounds that could one day be used to treat the disease.
And Orr has a new partner in this quest quite literally from the other side of the world.