Atlantic Fellows at GBHI Celebrate Joint Graduation

By Niall Kavanagh

“Commencement is not the end, but the beginning of a deeper and enduring connection.”

Brian Lawlor, deputy director of the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI), shared these words to close an inspiring joint ceremony celebrating the graduation of the third cohort of Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health at UC San Francisco (UCSF) and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) on August 8.

The graduating fellows—who have spent the last twelve months based at UCSF or TCD, GBHI’s founding sites, training in brain health, leadership, and dementia prevention—now join a lifelong community of seven Atlantic Fellows programs working to advance fairer, healthier and more inclusive societies.

“There’s an incredible movement for social justice happening around the world, said Victor Valcour, executive director of GBHI, in his opening address. “And we are a part of it.”

At the simulcast event, Veronica Campbell, Bursar & Director of Strategic Innovation at TCD, served as commencement speaker. She reflected on the practice of collaboration, which is foundational to GBHI’s multidisciplinary program, and the importance of changing the narrative of dementia.

“To effect change for elder care, you're much stronger if you can harness the support and the expertise of others,” said Campbell. “By working collaboratively, so much more can be achieved than any institution or any individual working on their own.”

Through their work, fellows emphasize local and global inequities in brain health with the goal of reducing the scale and impact of dementia in local communities around the world. Two graduating fellows shared reflections of their training year.

“What is most important of this experience is what we have had together,” said Maira Okada de Oliveira, a neuropsychologist from Brazil. “At the end of the day, it’s all about people.” She credited her closing line to the founder of Atlantic Philanthropies, Chuck Feeney.

Kirti Ranchod, a neurologist from South Africa, explored the challenging next steps to address the worldwide epidemic of dementia. “We thrive on challenges, we are problem solvers,” said Ranchod. “If you want to fly, you have to give up the things weighing you down.”

Atlantic Senior Fellows from GBHI, that is, graduates of the program, now total 78, spanning nearly 30 countries worldwide. They continue to have access to career-duration mentoring, funding opportunities, global gatherings, and more.

In his closing remarks, Lawlor shared appreciation for the opportunity to address the global challenge of dementia collaboratively, even in the face of differences.

“I think the beauty of GBHI and Atlantic is people are connecting where there is no common ground,” said Lawlor. “It's about connecting across differences. And when you bridge differences and connect, you can really change culture. That’s really what we're about: changing the culture around dementia.

Brain Lessons: Creativity, Courage, and Cooking

In early June, the Global Brain Health Institute hosted Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a Brazilian scientist who challenged the dogma that the brain has a hundred billion neurons. Herculano-Houzel could find no evidence or origin for this claim, so she set out to count every neuron herself. Her book The Human Advantage chronicles her journey into the brain to prove that humans fall short of this number. In the end, she found that the human brain has 86 billion neurons, far fewer than other species with bigger brains. Her message: humans aren’t as special as we think we are.

Jon Langford - Brain Song Radio Episode #1

Atlantic Fellow Heidi Clare recorded the first episode of Brain Song Radio live at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, interviewing musician Jon Langford and neurologist Bruce Miller to discuss creativity in the brain.

Building a Brain

What’s needed to understand the brain is a parts list: a population of neurons, a close community of glial cells and a map of the neighborhoods that are hard hit in a variety of neurodegenerative diseases. Bring neurologist Bill Seeley these things and let him get under the hood: He will figure out why some brain regions are vulnerable to specific diseases and others are not.

Three Sisters

When Debbie and Andrea’s sister shut down and stopped talking, after she publically obsessed over the beauty of her own feet, after the length of her sentences fractured into one word, after her blood was sent off for scrutiny, the pieces of a sad family puzzle finally fell into place. Their sister has a newly identified genetic mutation called chromosome 9 open reading frame 72 (C9ORF72) that can cause either frontotemporal dementia or motor neuron disease.

Life History Matters

Zachary Miller loves talking to his patients about their childhood. He believes that the clues to some neurodegenerative diseases have roots in a person’s early years of life. Did your mother have a normal pregnancy? Were you born on time? Did you enjoy reading? Were you ever tutored in math? Are you left-handed? And on and on it goes, patching together dozens of bits of life history to make sense of why an aging brain may be more vulnerable to specific types of dementia.

The Lost Wife

She stares at me, owl-eyed, empty. There is no embarrassment when time ticks on. She stares. A sound breaks her gaze and her eyes lock on to a new target. She is nowhere to be found. The old her, that is. The woman who showed such immense joy and love as a mother is gone. Her husband moves her around the streets of their city like he is pulling a 100-pound weight on wheels in his hand. She goes with the flow. He and the children have built a life around this new woman – this wife and mother who is lost to a genetic disease that has stolen everything human about her. She is only 38 years old. She no longer speaks. She stares. She is led to the bathroom, to the shower, to the table where they put a fork or spoon in her hand for her to eat.

The Puzzle of Language

There was an unspoken script in a young girl’s life growing up in a cultured family in Brescia, Italy in the 1970s that she would go on to a university to study the humanities. But this young girl had no interest in the arts or classics – she did poorly in Latin and Greek – and she had her sites set for medicine. Her mom grew up in a transitional generation in the early 1960s but observed feminism through a telescope. She knew she wanted something different for her only daughter, but she was still trapped in the tradition that etched out life for an Italian girl.

The Brain and HIV

The man is in his early 60s and his medical plate is full: an HIV diagnosis four years ago and well before that he began treatment for diabetes and coronary heart disease. For the most part, these conditions didn’t stop him from juggling the many things he loves to do: swimming, museums and dinner with his partner of 24 years, seeing his grown children and grandchildren, volunteering at a high-risk behavioral health group in his town, gardening, cooking – and oh, if he didn’t have enough to do, he went back to school for the fun of it. His schedule is filled with nine credits at a local college.

Unraveling Posterior Cortical Atrophy: Not Seeing Things That Are There

Eight years ago, the guy could stand up at a meeting and people would sit a bit taller and listen to what he had to say. On the way home, he would sit comfortably in his 1955 DeSoto and grin and wave to passersby. Then, people started honking when he passed and they were anything but happy to see his vintage car. It was happening with increased regularity. He’d scream back. But then noticed that he’d get to a turn in the road and press his foot down heavy on the brake because he didn’t know which way to go. A short time later, the landlord complained that it looked like a three year old had filled out the rent check. None of the information was in the right place. His name was scrawled at the top of the check. It was random – and scary.