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Initiative brings top brain researchers to Minnesota

Dr. Jerrold Vitek1 / 3
Dr. Michael Park2 / 3
Dr. Scott Cooper3 / 3

When Dr. Michael Park was lured from the University of Louisville to the University of Minnesota, he decided he needed a new metaphor to describe what he does.

"I tell people that it's kind of like ice fishing," said Park, who moved to the state in December. "You make a hole in the skull, and you're actually dropping down electrodes rather than a fishing line."

Park was describing deep brain stimulation, a procedure used to treat patients with advanced cases of Parkinson's disease and some other neurological disorders.

Although the technique is not new, a team at the University of Minnesota led by Meadowlands native Dr. Jerrold Vitek is on the cutting edge of efforts to make the procedure more reliable.

Their work is in the Twin Cities, but Vitek brought several members of his team to Duluth this week to make the case that what they do is good use of taxpayers' money.

Their focus is on discoveries and treatments for brain conditions, one of four initiatives the Minnesota Legislature approved in 2013 with $18 million in annual funding under the general title MnDRIVE. Other focuses are robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; and advancing industry while conserving the environment.

Vitek, who still enjoys summer weekends at the family cabin in Alborn, came to the U of M after previous stints at Johns Hopkins University, Emory University and the Cleveland Clinic. As head of the U of M Medical School's Department of Neurology, he leads the brain team, whose work is properly known as neuromodulation research.

His team's share of the MnDRIVE funding was $6.8 million in 2014-15 and will be $7.9 million in 2016-17, Vitek said. He used the money, in part, to recruit six top-level researchers, including Park and Dr. Scott Cooper, who arrived a few months ago from the Cleveland Clinic. Two more are on the way, Vitek said.

Their focus area affects a lot of people, he said. One million North Americans have Parkinson's, a progressive disorder of the nervous system. That includes 17,213 Minnesotans, an estimated 3,443 of whom could benefit from deep brain stimulation — or DBS in the neurologists' shorthand. More than 21,000 Minnesotans have the condition known as essential tremors, and nearly a third of them are candidates for DBS.

The procedure, conducted while the patient is awake, can achieve astounding results, Vitek said.

"There's no feeling like it, to turn on a stimulator, and watch somebody go from this (he let his hand shake) to like this (he held his hand steady)," Vitek said. "You've turned the pages back for them."

DBS also is used to treat children and adults with dystonia, a disorder characterized by involuntary muscle contractions. "People that were unable to walk, that were wheelchair-bound, are getting up and walking," Vitek said.

It's done by inserting an electrical lead that's about the size of a human hair in a dime-sized hole in the skull — Park's ice fishing analogy. The neurologist seeks to place it in a target area that affects the body's movements. If that's done successfully, the lead is attached later to a pacemaker-like device that regulates the electrical impulses going to the site.

The problem is that too often it's not done successfully, Vitek explained. "If you're off by a millimeter you may go from having good benefit to no benefit," he said.

Improving placement accuracy is one of the subjects his team is exploring, Vitek said.

The program's economic impact comes from bringing in federal grants, developing new technology in partnership with the state's medical device companies and from reducing health care costs, he said. Costs can be reduced because some patients who can't work will be able to work if the treatment is effective; others will no longer require aides for daily functions; and fewer costly medications will be needed, among other things.

Sixteen area legislators had been invited to the presentation, which was at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Only two came: state Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, who teaches at UMD; and state Rep. Bud Nornes, a Republican from Fergus Falls.

Schultz said it's too early to tell if the investment in brain research will pay off for the state.

"It looks promising," Schultz added. "I think anything that we can do to improve opportunities for medical device companies and partner with the university on research, historically we've done well, and hopefully we can continue that tradition."

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