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Neurodegenerative Disorders Division Overview

Our goal is to develop treatments that can arrest the progression of neurodegenerative diseases in affected persons and develop interventions to protect those at risk of developing a particular neurodegenerative disease.

Neurodegenerative diseases arise as particular brain regions gradually fail. They are clinically characterized by the nature of the symptoms that first present, and usually manifest as changes in cognition, movement, strength, or balance.

Goals of the Neurodegenerative Disorders Division are to improve the lives of those with neurodegenerative diseases while developing new, novel, and more effective treatments. Among the faculty are physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and management of many neurodegenerative disorders, as well as physicians and scientists with active neurodegenerative disease research programs.

Older peopleDivision Director:
Russ Swerdlow, MD

Associate Director: 
Doug Wright, PhD

The Neurodegenerative Disorders Division focuses on a variety of diseases, which can be divided into four groups:

  • Cognitive decline: This group of disorders includes Alzheimer's disease, the single most common neurodegenerative disease, which affects a large percentage of our elderly population. Alzheimer's disease classically presents as a progressive loss of memory abilities. Other diseases, including Dementia with Lewy bodies, frontotemporal dementias, and prion diseases, can also first present as disorders of cognitive decline.
  • Loss of movement control: The most common disorder in this group is Parkinson's disease, in which affected persons can have variable degrees of slow movements, tremor, stiffness, and poor balance. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish Parkinson's disease from other disorders that decrease a person's ability to move fluidly, including progressive supranuclear palsy, corticobasal degeneration, and multiple system atrophy. Some disorders in this group, such as Huntington's disease, can actually present with excessive, uncontrolled movements.
  • Weakness: Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a rare but devastating condition in which weakness develops due to a progressive loss of motor neurons. Weakness can also result from a progressive loss of muscle cells, which can occur in inclusion body myositis and other primary diseases of the muscle.
  • Poor balance: Poor balance, which is also called ataxia, can result from the specific loss of cerebellar or spinal cord neurons. This group of diseases, which are often genetically inherited, comprise a group of disorders called the spinocerebellar atrophies.
  • If you are experiencing symptoms and would like to make an appointment with a doctor, call 913-588-6820.

In some cases, mutations in particular genes can give rise to a particular disease. In most cases, though, a specific mutation is not present although an increased susceptibility to a disease can still be inherited. Environmental and lifestyle factors can play a role. For the diseases in which we do know the specific cause, more research is still needed to understand why a specific cause ultimately gives rise to a specific disease. For the diseases in which the specific cause is still unclear, it is hoped further research will provide new etiologic insights.

The first step is a careful review of the presenting history and a thorough examination. For some disease, specific tests can prove a particular disease either is or is not present. For some disorders, tests may not be definitive but can still indicate whether a particular diagnosis is more or less likely to be the case. For other diseases, accurate tests are not available and the diagnosis depends almost exclusively on the physician's impression.

Although most neurodegenerative diseases cannot be cured, in many cases treatments are available that can improve an affected patient's quality of life. Sometimes symptoms can be effectively addressed for limited but sometimes also extended periods of time, and experimental treatments to modify the pathologies that underlie different neurodegenerative diseases are being actively developed.

Institute for Neurological Discoveries