Stanford University's Alzheimer's Disease Research Center as well as its Center for Memory Disorders are among the groups in a brand new building combining patient clinics and research into a wide range of neurological diseases.
The five-story Stanford Neuroscience Health Center -- next to the old Hoover Pavilion and across the street from Stanford Shopping Center -- is designed to be a "one-stop" diagnosis and treatment center for people with a variety of conditions including Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, Parkinson's disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, brain tumors and various neuromuscular challenges. It opened in January.
On a recent weekday afternoon patients -- some in wheelchairs and many assisted by family members or caregivers -- navigated the airy first-floor lobby. Receptionists there serve as the check-in center for the whole building, streamlining the process for patients who may have multiple appointments on the same day.
Besides being patient-friendly, with features such as handrails and wide corridors, the new center aims to harness the brainpower that is spread out among many departments within Stanford, said Alison Kerr, a vice-president of operations for Stanford Healthcare.
By putting doctors and departments together, treatment plans become less dependent on the staff to whom a patient happens to be referred, Kerr said.
"If you're all working in the same area you see someone and you can just grab them and say, 'I just saw this woman -- can you look at her films or come over and talk to her?'" Kerr said.
"Most department chairs in neurology and neurosurgery don't actually work together, but they work very well together here," she added. "Being able to partner with our university colleagues in creating a rich environment that translates into patient care is our sweet spot."
Stanford patients representing a range of neurological conditions helped to design the interior of the Neuroscience Health Center, Kerr said. They include people like San Carlos resident Nancy Stohn, a Parkinson's patient who has been a feng shui consultant, interior designer, space planner and art consultant.
"Members of our Patient and Family Advisory Council chose every piece of tile, fabric and color," Kerr said. "On chair days we brought in all the chairs we were considering for them to try out. If you have a rod in your spine, that's really important.
"And as we were designing this space we knew it didn't make sense to put the Alzheimer's clinic on the first floor near a door where cars are driving because sometimes Alzheimer's patients get frightened and they bolt," Kerr added. "Our patients helped us understand all these things."
The new building includes a "wellness center," where Parkinson's patients can participate in dance and tai chi classes, and also a small, outdoor "mobility garden" where patients can use handrails while practicing ramps, stairs and walking on concrete, sand and wood-chip surfaces.
While there's no cure for Alzheimer's, recent advances in understanding its underlying biological and chemical processes offer hope that breakthroughs will happen, said physician and professor Victor Henderson, who directs the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.
The current treatments of cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine drugs are "better than what was available 20 years ago, but not what we need," Henderson said.
Currently, an estimated 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's, and that number is expected to reach 13.8 million by 2050. The Alzheimer's Disease Research Center is one of more than two dozen Alzheimer's centers across the country funded by the National Institutes of Health.
"These are supposed to serve as centers of excellence to be on the cutting edge of finding new forms of treatment and prevention for Alzheimer's and related dementias," Henderson said.
Henderson's research interests include factors that affect cognitive skills at midlife as well as different forms of mental and physical activity in older men and women, which many believe can address cognitive aging and perhaps lower the risk of dementia. He is also studying the cognitive consequences of estrogen, testosterone and other hormones.
Stanford researchers are conducting eight clinical trials on memory disorders, including Henderson's Aging Brain Study and Brain Bank Program. The Aging Brain Study, seeking people with Alzheimer's, mild cognitive impairment, Lewy Body dementia, Parkinson's and healthy volunteers, will collect medical and family histories and medication, and will follow participants over time. The Stanford Brain Bank Program is seeking a broad range of people with neurological disorders as well as healthy adults 65 and older to serve as controls. Participants will be asked to consider donating their brains at the time of death. Scientists hope to better understand neurodegenerative disorders by comparing clinical and autopsy findings and by examining microscopic, biochemical and genetic features. The pathologist's brain autopsy report will be given to family members.
For healthy people hoping to improve their odds against cognitive decline, regular physical activity, social engagement and mental activity is thought to help, Henderson said.
"There are so many baby boomers," he said. "There are things people think might make a difference, but I have to preface that by saying the kind of evidence we have (to support those links) is observational rather than experimental. It's not the same as a clinical trial, where you randomize a large group of people."