Unraveling the Mysteries of the Brain


Speaking to legislators on the Texas House Committee on Public Health in 2017, Dr. Marc Diamond described the scene when he arrived at UT Southwestern: “When I arrived in 2014, I was given the opportunity to build a truly multidisciplinary research team to attack this problem of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says, “which I envisioned much like the Manhattan Project of World War II.”

Five short years later, Diamond is one of more than 2,000 faculty and staff at the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute, where they work to treat and find the root causes of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, epilepsy, and peripheral nerve injuries.

The institute launched in 2015 with a $36 million gift from Edith and Peter O’Donnell Jr.’s foundation and, in short order, joined Harvard, Yale and 22 other institutions as a clinical trial site in the Network for Excellence in Neuroscience Clinical Trials Center. Diamond was named director of the Center for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at the institute.

Years before, Diamond and fellow researchers earned acclaim for research that identified how a particular protein — tau — triggers dementia occurring with Alzheimer’s disease. The condition afflicts more than 390,000 Texans and 5.8 million Americans. More specifically, Diamond’s lab was able to describe how tau proteins aggregate in one brain region and how they move like a virus, infecting healthy cells and triggering dementia.

Now he and others at the institute are working with peers to develop — at genetic, molecular and systemic levels — ways to predict if certain diseases will afflict healthy brains, how to prevent brain injury, ways to disrupt brain diseases, and methods for restoring brain function caused by injury or disease.

Leaders at UT Southwestern predict that the next decade will be as significant in brain science as the 1980s were for cardiovascular research with the discovery of statins — those cholesterol-lowering drugs that have helped tens of millions of people around the world — and led to UT Southwestern’s first two Nobel Prizes. They foresee the day when scientists in the region will earn similar recognition for unraveling the mysteries of the brain.

This article is part of the 2020 Higher Education Review Magazine.