Neurologist Jerrold Vitek, MD, PhD, landed at the University of Minnesota mostly by chance.
In 1973, Vitek had graduated from college and was considering his future. While working a factory-line job in Chicago, he was weighing two options: graduate school or a Peace Corps posting in Botswana. He opted for the University of Minnesota. The decision changed his life forever.
More than four decades later, Vitek is a renowned neurologist and the leader of the University of Minnesota’s Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research. The center’s multi-disciplinary team consists of physicians, researchers and engineers—all of whom are focused on developing new treatments for Parkinson’s disease and learning more about its debilitating effects on the brain.
We asked him to tell us more about his unlikely journey, new research at the Udall Center and the future of Parkinson’s disease care.
After graduate school and medical school, you landed at Johns Hopkins University and eventually Emory University — what drew you to those institutions?
I started working with a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University named Mahlon DeLong
. Mahlon’s research was focused on the connection between human movement and a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. My partnership with Mahlon became one of the most important developments in my career. I continued working with him when he moved to Emory. At that time, we were searching for targets in the brain where neurosurgeons could make lesions to reduce Parkinson’s disease symptoms. This was before newer treatments like deep brain stimulation were available. Eventually, as deep brain stimulation (DBS)
began to emerge as a viable option, we adopted it into our own program.
What brought you back to Minnesota?
After 14 years with Mahlon at Emory, Cleveland Clinic recruited me to set up a DBS program. Six years later, I had an opportunity to become chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Minnesota
. My wife thought we should come home because we missed Minnesota. I rounded up much of my team from Cleveland Clinic and came back.
At the University of Minnesota, we slowly started recruiting. We had funding, but we needed the infrastructure and the people. It took some time, but it usually takes time if you want to get the right people—and now we have the right people.
You are a deep brain stimulation pioneer. What have you and your team accomplished in the last seven years?
At the University of Minnesota’s Udall Center for Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research
, our primary goal has been developing our understanding of brain circuitry. This is important because during a DBS procedure, we place special electrodes—known as leads—into the brain
. Electrical stimulation from these leads helps stop tremors and other Parkinson’s disease or movement disorder symptoms. We want to understand which areas of the brain produce movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease so that we can more accurately target those areas with deep brain stimulation.
Our second goal? We know that DBS works, but we also want to get a clearer picture of how it works. What does it change in the brain’s circuitry to reduce the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease and improve a person’s movement? We now have a truly multi-disciplinary team working on these research questions. Our goal is to improve the therapy.
What’s the next step for DBS treatments?
We’re examining the causes of gait disorders in Parkinson’s disease patients, who often experience difficulty walking because of the disease. They may only be capable of taking small steps or shuffling—or they may freeze altogether while trying to walk. These episodes are common, but they don’t always respond to DBS or medication. The team is looking for other potential solutions. As I mentioned before, we’re also investigating new targets within the brain for DBS. We believe there are different places in the brain that could be better than the targets currently used for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease symptoms. Our team is also interested in exploring how DBS might help patients with other diagnoses, including depression.
You’ve been working in neurology for four decades. What keeps you here? What keeps you excited?
Discovery. That’s why we do it. I’m driven by the excitement of a new discovery that could help our patients. At the same time, using deep brain stimulation to treat movement disorders, restore function and improve a person’s quality of life never gets old, no matter how many times you do it. There’s nothing like that feeling anywhere else.