Welcome from the Director

Scott Small, MD

There is a collective sense that research into Alzheimer’s disease is on the cusp of major breakthroughs. In our ongoing attempts to understand the disease, to distinguish it from normal aging, to diagnose the disease as early as possible, and ultimately to treat this disease, which has emerged as the most common disorder of the brain.

Although Alzheimer’s disease (AD) was described at the beginning of the 20th century, earnest scientific research shedding light on this disease and its causes began only in the century’s tail end. The dawn of the new century ushered in a new era of sophistication, in our understanding of the fundamental causes and risk factors of AD, in clarifying how it relates to aging, in diagnosing the disease, and in developing therapeutic interventions. While we have not yet reached the "finish line," there is a justifiable sense of optimism that we have finally turned a corner, and are entering the home stretch of the marathon race to find a cure.

The Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) at Columbia University was established 25 years ago, with Dr. Michael Shelanski as its first Director, and Dr. Richard Mayeux as its Co-Director. In the summer of 2013, Dr. Scott Small took over as the new Director. It was during the last quarter of a century that the field at large made its major breakthroughs into AD, and our ADRC has been an active participant in nearly every aspect of this global effort. Among our many achievements, our investigators have been leaders in the efforts to characterize the disease, to identify risk factors, to identify genetic links, to use imaging techniques to pinpoint the earliest brain sites affected by the disease, and to use animal models and cells in a dish to understand the disease’s biology.

Most recently, our investigators have begun exploring new diagnostic tools of, and novel therapeutic interventions against, two new biologic pathways that are now thought to underlie the most common forms of Alzheimer’s disease. One pathway resides in the brain’s immune cells, which seem to abnormally respond to the pre-existence of disease. The other pathway resides in neurons, where it governs the complex process of orderly trafficking of proteins. When defective, this pathway can result in "traffic jams" within neurons, which is now known to act as a trigger of the disease.

Besides these research efforts, a second broad mandate of our ADRC is a focus on patients and their families. We work closely with the Department of Neurology, whose Aging and Dementia Division is home to expert clinicians, many of whom are key investigators in our ADRC, in the diagnosis and treatment of AD and related disorders. In parallel, we work with the Department of Pathology and Cell Biology, whose world-class Neuropathologists are ADRC investigators and aide in the final diagnosis of AD and related disorders. Just as importantly, our ADRC investigators are in charge of a number of clinical trials, and of patient outreach, advocacy, and education.

Finally, the third mandate of our ADRC is to inspire, educate, and train a new wave of investigators in our ongoing battle against AD and related disorders. We offer many training opportunities to students at any stage: from high school students, graduate and medical students, to residents and post-doctoral fellows, through junior and even senior investigators or physicians who are interested in joining this battle. We support a monthly lecture series and fund an annual Development Award program.

Scott Small, MD
Director, Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC)
Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology (in The Taub Institute, The Sergievsky Center, Radiology and in Psychiatry)