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The History of Columbia University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC)

The 1980s must be considered a golden decade for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) research, a decade during which many biological disciplines galvanized around a disease that only a decade earlier was established as the dominant cause of "senile dementia."

Isolating Aβ peptide from amyloid plaques led to the identification of the amyloid precursor protein (APP), which together with other findings on the tau protein ushered in the cell biology, molecular biology, and the genetics of AD. It was also during the 1980s that clinical investigators came together to begin establishing standardized clinical, neuropsychological, and pathological criteria for defining AD. It was during this transformative decade that the National Institute on Aging (NIA) appreciated the need to establish AD research centers (ADRCs) at numerous academic institutions across the country. These centers were envisioned to act as local hubs that, beyond supporting specific projects, would become beacons for AD research to inspire and recruit new investigators, and to integrate research across levels of analysis, departments, and disciplines. Additionally, the ADRCs were expected to collaborate with other institutions and organizations. The vision was based on the belief that, given the complexity of AD and related disorders, progress will only emerge by creating local networks within institutions, which would themselves act as nodes in larger global networks.

It was in this spirit that in the late 1980s Michael Shelanski, the chair of the Department of Pathology at Columbia University, and Richard Mayeux, currently the chair of the Department of Neurology, decided to join forces in submitting an application for an ADRC at Columbia University. The joining of forces, between investigators from different departments and with expertise at different levels of analysis and disciplines, resonated with the integrative mandate of the ADRC grant mechanism.

The ADRC at Columbia was first awarded in 1989, and has continued to the present day. In 2013, Dr. Shelanski decided to step down as the director, and Scott Small became the new Director of the ADRC. Throughout its history, the ADRC has established an ever-expanding local network or research at Columbia, and an ADRC that actively participates in a broad global network.