Unlocking secrets of brain diseases: A transformational opportunity to improve health

Guadalupe and Lenonor Villarreal © UC Regents
Guadalupe and Leonor Villarreal sought the expertise of a team of specialists at the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center when Guadalupe Villarreal began forgetting facts of his life as a farmer.

Posted Jan. 18, 2012

Nestled among the orchards surrounding Hughson, Calif., is the farm that has been home to Guadalupe Villarreal and his family for 40 years. He and his wife, Leonor, raised their three children there amid tidy rows of peach and almond trees.

Running the farm kept Guadalupe Villarreal more than busy. There was always something to prune, to plant, to irrigate or to harvest. But during the summer of 2007, he began forgetting the facts of his life. He no longer could remember where the road past his house led, grew frustrated looking for his closet and dresser, and kept asking after his long-deceased mother.

Worried, Leonor Villarreal took him to the family’s doctor, and ultimately to the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center. There, a team of clinicians evaluated his overall health, studied scans of his brain and tested his memory. After ruling out other conditions, the doctors diagnosed him at age 73 with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“At first we were all in denial,” says Leonor Villarreal, his wife of 57 years, “because I could not accept that would be him.”

Living with Alzheimer ’s disease

But the UC Davis center was able to offer the Villarreals guidance on how to deal with the diagnosis. Doctors recommended two medications to slow the progression of the disease, and coordinated Guadalupe Villarreal’s care with the family’s physician. With a diagnosis in hand, the Villarreal family could help keep the patriarch safe.

UC Davis Health System works to bring the most recent scientific and technological developments in neuroscience to patients.

“The kids don’t let him get on the tractor,” Leonor Villarreal says. “He doesn’t drive into town anymore. I write down on the calendar what he’s done, when he’s fed the dogs or taken his medication.”

The UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center is dedicated to investigating the causes of dementia and mental aging. Led by director and professor of neurology Charles DeCarli, the center follows more than 500 research subjects such as Guadalupe Villarreal, and evaluates more than 200 patients each year. The center has received continuous grant funding from the National Institute on Aging since 1991, the most recent in 2011 with a five-year grant of $6.9 million. For his work at the center using imaging technology to link vascular functioning in the brain with the structural changes seen in Alzheimer’s and dementia, DeCarli was awarded the J. Allyn Taylor International Prize in Medicine in October 2010.

Dr. Boggan during surgery © UC Regents
UC Davis clinicians and researchers, such as neurosurgeon James Boggan, are gaining an understanding of brain health and ensuring that patients across California and beyond have access to the neuroscience expertise they need.

A strategic focus

Through the Alzheimer’s Disease Center and other centers of excellence, UC Davis Health System works to bring the most recent scientific and technological developments in neuroscience to patients. Among other centers of investigation are the Center for Neuroscience, which performs basic research on all aspects of the brain and nervous system; the Center for Mind and Brain, which studies memory formation and other building blocks of cognitive function; the Imaging Research Center, which improves ways to visualize the structure and chemistry of the working brain; and the Center for Visual Sciences, which explores the genetic, molecular and neurological mechanisms that enable the body’s keenest sense.

These partnerships among UC Davis physicians and other researchers from many disciplines are greater than the sum of their parts. Together, these researchers are gaining a detailed understanding of brain health and ensuring that patients across California have access to the first-rate neuroscience services they need. This fundamental strength is the key reason neuroscience is one of the four focus areas in UC Davis Health System’s 2011– 2016 Strategic Plan.

Psychiatrists, for example, are in short supply in many areas of California, making mental health evaluations difficult to obtain for local residents. To broaden access to consultations, UC Davis School of Medicine researchers have investigated the use of videotaped patient interviews that can be viewed and analyzed later by psychiatrists. Peter Yellowlees, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and his colleagues found that the approach, known as asynchronous telepsychiatry, allows patient conditions to be diagnosed and treatments to begin far more rapidly than if the patients waited for an in-person appointment with a psychiatrist.

Reducing autism risk

With diagnoses of autism rising throughout the nation, scientists at the UC Davis MIND Institute investigate genetic, environmental and other factors contributing to this neurodevelopmental disorder. Rebecca J. Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Public Health Sciences, discovered this past year that prenatal vitamins constitute a potentially groundbreaking means to reduce the risk of development of autism. Schmidt found that women who did not take daily prenatal vitamins before and after the first month of pregnancy nearly doubled their chance of having a baby with autism spectrum disorder.

Research at the UC Davis MIND Institute found that women who did not take daily prenatal vitamins before and after the first month of pregnancy nearly doubled their chance of having a baby with autism spectrum disorder.

That risk rose up to seven times greater than average among mothers and children with genes associated with less efficient metabolism of folate (vitamin B9). The study identifies a low-cost potential intervention to reduce autism prevalence and highlights a potential role for folate in the occurrence of autism.

Brain trauma, such as strokes, and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, cause paralysis and loss of function in millions of Americans each year. The damage results from the loss of cells that form the insulating myelin sheath around neurons.

Scientists at UC Davis have found a way to use the brain’s own stem cells to regenerate these damaged tissues. Wenbin Deng, an assistant professor of cell biology and human anatomy, found earlier this year that a factor produced by immature myelin-forming cells can encourage the growth of new insulating cells in adult mice. The treatment restored full motor function to mice with damaged myelin sheaths. This finding identifies a potential target for a drug therapy that could boost production of this stem cell factor in the human brain.

Vice Chancellor's Annual Report 2011

2011 Vice Chancellor's Annual Report cover © UC Regents

"Unlocking the secrets of brain diseases” first appeared in the 2011 Vice Chancellor’s Annual Report. Read more (PDF) about the health system’s growing recognition as a national force in transforming health care and improving health for all.

Providing hope

Such innovative approaches promise to help patients such as Guadalupe Villarreal and his family. He still helps out around the farm, pruning the roses and feeding the dogs, although this year he had to relinquish planting and maintaining a garden. He even passed the test for his driver’s license, but no longer feels confident enough to motor into town.

“He’s trying to cope with it, but sometimes he forgets. Sometimes he tells me, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know I was supposed to get something, but I can’t remember what it is.’ I say ‘Yes, honey, we know something’s wrong, but you’re taking your medication and that will help you,’” Leonor Villarreal says.

The Villarreal family is all too aware that Guadalupe Villarreal’s ability to care for himself will decline. Alzheimer’s disease erased the memories and independence of three of his siblings. But the entire family – his two sons and a daughter, a daughter-in-law and nine grandchildren – has pulled together to watch over Guadalupe Villarreal and help him maintain his quality of life. For her part, Leonor Villarreal feels her husband is getting the best care available from the UC Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“I’m glad that it’s a research institution. They are more up to date on the latest science than our local physicians,” she says. “We hope his experience will eventually help others.”