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Sunday, May 13, 2012
A Father's Battle To Change The Future Of Brain Research
At a recent lunch organized by Jeffrey Lieberman, Columbia University’s chairman of psychiatry, New York’s top neurological researchers gathered to meet the nonprofit team they had been told would transform the very nature of their jobs.
Patrick Kennedy (Ted’s son and a former Congressman from Rhode Island), the cochairman and public face of the charity One Mind for Research, kicked off the meeting by deeming the assembled luminaries “today’s astronauts.” General Pete Chiarelli, One Mind’s new CEO—recruited from his just-completed stint as the U.S. Army’s vice chief of staff—discussed the astonishing increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury seen in soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The key figure at the gathering, though, was Garen Staglin, the quiet force behind One Mind and two other mental health charities, all of which have helped promote psychiatric-drug research even as big pharmaceutical firms have scaled back their efforts. Despite pressure on the National Institutes ofHealth’s budget, Staglin averred, it was still possible to get the government to open its coffers—if politicians could only be made to recognize the toll taken by mental illness, from the Alzheimer’s striking aging baby boomers to the autism afflicting their grandchildren.
“The time is now. We can move from treatments to preventions to early diagnosis and develop cures,” Staglin told the group.
His talk unleashed the floodgates: Scientists doing research on nerve signaling in worms were now trading ideas with those who study how concussions can lead to Alzheimer’s-like brain tangles. Drug-company researchers conferred with academics trying to treat mental illness with electromagnetic fields. The room came alive with ideas.
Such connections in the service of a larger good are something of a Staglin hallmark. One Mind for Research was in part Kennedy’s brainchild, but Staglin has actually made it work, enlisting big partners, including Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, IBM, and Eli Lilly, and recruiting Chiarelli, who spurned more lucrative opportunities to become the group’s chief executive. Stag-lin has long been an “integrator” in the fight against mental illness: someone who gets people who otherwise might never speak to work together. (At times, he has forced competitive academics to collaborate, warning them they won’t get grants from his charities otherwise.)
“With brain research, we’re where cancer was 20 years ago,” Staglin says. “There’s no American Brain Society. The American Cancer Society has unified the public behind the idea that we can cure the disease, not just from government but also private sources. We need to do the same.”
Continue reading to find out Staglin's personal motivation for supporting brain research.
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