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December 21, 2014

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RESEARCH:

Brain institute thinking big

It wants to develop a model for treatment of dementia

The country’s top dementia experts — academics, advocates and researchers — gathered in a conference room the other day to brainstorm public policy recommendations for Congress on how to fight dementia.

And of all people, they were getting advice from a venture capitalist and investor.

John Dwyer’s speech was a bit of a downer, but still a pep talk. Money is tight in Washington, and scientists and advocates for other causes have their hands out, too. Don’t even consider coming with the same status quo proposals, Dwyer warned, because only the ambitious will be rewarded.

“Think like Ruvo — think big,” Dwyer said. “The only way they will pay attention in this coming year is if it’s big enough that they have to pay attention.”

By “Ruvo” he meant Larry Ruvo, senior managing director of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada and a well-known Las Vegas philanthropist. Ruvo’s father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and had trouble finding excellent care in Las Vegas. In his honor, Ruvo founded the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute, an organization that, as Dwyer said, is thinking big on many levels.

For instance, it organized the symposium on the prevention of dementia, putting “Las Vegas on the map as a place where you can have a serious scientific discussion,” said Dr. Zaven Khachaturian, the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute’s president and chief executive.

New approach

The Lou Ruvo Brain Institute’s vision stands in stark contrast to the shortcomings in Las Vegas health care. It wants to create a model for treating neurological diseases and turn Las Vegas into a destination for world-class researchers.

Las Vegas lacks comprehensive dementia care, and the current model of treatment is reactive. Memory loss is usually the first symptom of dementia, which often appears in the form of Alzheimer’s. By the time a person is evaluated by a doctor, there’s little that can be done. People with dementia can live for years with the disease.

Khachaturian’s goal: Establish the Ruvo Institute as a place where the disease is examined comprehensively by geriatric and brain experts, nurses and social workers.

“We want to take ownership of the patient so there’s a continuous connection with a social worker who knows the patient,” he said. The social workers would benefit caregivers with emotional and educational support, as well as other resources that might be needed.

Broad vision

In the broader sense, Khachaturian wants to nurture Las Vegas as a hub for brain research, where, for instance, primary-care doctors could diagnose the disease with Internet-based tools, or a registry could be established of Nevada Baby Boomers who may be at risk for dementia. These patients — perhaps numbering in the thousands — could be examined annually to search for the early onset of the disease and increase prevention efforts. Such a registry would provide a research base that would attract scientists and could become a model for a national registry.

But first things first. The institute’s architecturally daring building, designed by Frank Gehry, is expected to be completed next year. Some staff members have moved into offices.

Khachaturian said the building bears witness to what Dwyer was talking about at the symposium — Larry Ruvo’s broad vision.

“That was a big risk,” Khachaturian said of the $75 million building. “But it’s really putting a stake in the ground and to say, ‘Brain disorders are important, and I’m putting my reputation and fortune behind this endeavor.’ ”

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