April 30, 2021

Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

New university-wide initiative sharpens the focus on inflammation and aging

Inflammation that shows up for a few days as redness and a little pain around the site where we received a COVID-19 vaccine is a good thing. It shows that our immune system is on the scene enabling healing. But inflammation can have unhealthy tradeoffs, like when our immune system often inexplicably attacks our own tissue in autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. The term “inflammaging,” a chronic state of “sterile” inflammation that can happen as we age, is another, that instead of healing us, puts us at risk for some of the most serious conditions that we know, conditions like heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and related dementia, even depression. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that by 2030 all baby boomers will be older than 65, which means that one in every five Americans will be retirement age. It also means that the increased risk of age-related disease like vascular dementia, which likely will be greatest in areas like our own state where hypertension, which itself is a chronic inflammatory state, is so pervasive, is going to hit our state and the Southeast hard. Being Black, which a little more than 30% of our citizens are, further elevates the risk. This coming “tsunami” of dementia is of concern to the National Institutes of Health and to all of us. In fact, the NIH has committed extra funding to dementia and vascular dementia. Georgia Memory Net, an Emory University-led initiative that is led here by Dr. John Morgan, neurologist and director of our Movement and Memory Disorder Programs, tells us there are already 140,000 Georgians living with Alzheimer’s and that number likely will reach 190,000 by 2025. So it is a good and logical thing that our university, Georgia’s health sciences university, is taking on inflammaging and brain aging with a renewed vigor.

$15 million will be invested in next three years, 15-20 more scientists hired

As we mentioned last time, President Keel announced this initiative at his State of the University address April 16. The university will invest about $15 million in the next three years to hire 15-20 more scientists to help us take on this looming health tsunami. Like any big problem, a lot of good minds need to take this on, and this initiative will be collaborative across our university, and will include MCG, the Dental College of Georgia, the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, as well as our colleagues in the colleges of Nursing, Allied Health Sciences and Science and Mathematics. Our Dr. Mark Hamrick, bone and muscle biologist and senior associate dean for research, and Dr. Babak Baban, immunologist and associate dean for research at DCG, are leading the charge on strategically growing the already great team we have here combatting the potential ravages of aging. They are logical choices. For example, Dr. Hamrick along with another MCG great, Dr. Carlos Isales, a physician-scientist and chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, who is PI — Dr. Hamrick is a project lead — on a program project grant exploring how to keep bones and muscle strong with age and improve our “health span,” already co-direct our Center for Healthy Aging, which has a strong research and clinical focus. Dr. Baban, who knows the intricacies of the immune response, is a longtime collaborator with MCG faculty like Dr. Jack Yu, another strong physician-scientist and chief of pediatric plastic surgery, and Dr. Morgan, who works directly with patients and families trying to manage tough diseases like Alzheimer’s. This is a fantastic opportunity for our medical school and university to strategically grow in a needed direction, and I appreciate Dr. Keel’s leadership and vision in making this happen. This extra push has the additional benefit of also helping us achieve our goal of becoming a top-60 medical school, based on NIH funding, by at least 2030. Bring it on.

Emily Baumann gives additional $1 million to support psychotherapy for children in need

While on the important topic of taking care of our brains, it is my great pleasure to also share with you the $1 million gift from community philanthropist Emily Baumann who has again stepped up to help ensure that children with mental health concerns get the psychotherapy they need. As our psychiatry leader Dr. Vaughn McCall shared with Ms. Baumann about five years ago, too many children are caught in the vicious cycle of needing talk therapy to work through problems that could have lifelong consequences, but either their insurance will not cover it and/or their parents cannot afford it. From our additional perspective of providing the next generation of child and adolescent psychiatrists to help see to the mental well-being of children, our trainees need to take care of young patients to learn, and Georgia already has a dearth of these specialists. So Ms. Baumann started the Emily S. Baumann Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Fund at our MCG Foundation to enable support that has a true multiplier, game-changing effect. She has encouraged others to join her, and since March 2016, the support has enabled more than 3,500 hours of therapy sessions for children. Now Ms. Baumann has made an additional $1 million contribution to this important cause. Stepping up — and stepping up more than once — to meet a critical unmet need is something that is near and dear to the heart of MCG. Ms. Baumann is someone who is. 

Dr. Brian Miller assumes presidency of the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association tomorrow

So is Dr. Brian Miller, a psychiatrist and schizophrenia expert who came to us in 2005 for his residency and fellowship after earning his MD at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. Many of you likely remember that Dr. Miller learned from and worked closely with our former dean, Dr. Peter Buckley, also a specialist in schizophrenia. In fact, the two were honored in 2014 by the American Psychiatric Association as a senior researcher and mentor who have made significant contributions in the field. Starting tomorrow, Dr. Miller is assuming the presidency of the state branch of this national group, the Georgia Psychiatric Physicians Association. He has served on the group’s Board of Trustees and first became an officer in 2017. Like so many of you, this innate educator has been involved with the group’s continuing medical education effort and is currently chair of the CME Committee. He also is definitely continuing to make contributions to understanding and treating schizophrenia. His recently published study that shows a clear association between insomnia and more suicidal thoughts and even worse disease symptoms in these patients made headlines around the world. Thank you for your service Dr. Miller and for continuing to keep a smile on your face as you serve.

Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley to be inducted in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame

Speaking of psychiatry, excelling and making headlines, it turns out the late and famous Dr. Hervey M. Cleckley, an Augusta native, excelled at more than his chosen field. Most of you likely know that Dr. Cleckley, a 1929 MCG graduate, and his colleague Dr. Corbett H. Thigpen, a 1945 MCG graduate, wrote the book, The Three Faces of Eve, to shed light on multiple personality disorder, now known as dissociative identity disorder. You may not know that Dr. Cleckley was the founding chair of our Psychiatry Department and that for years he and Dr. Thigpen were essentially the only faculty. Their famous book would become a famous movie and now, our Dr. Cleckley will be inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame for his also rock star performance in track and field as a student of the Academy of Richmond County, which included breaking records in the 100-yard and 220-yard dash. Fast. He was also a star football and track team member at the University of Georgia. This clearly gifted individual also would become a Rhodes Scholar. Talk about well rounded. See Joe Hotchkiss’ story in The Augusta Chronicle here.

Dr. Vaughn McCall finds our insomnia rates are up with the advent of COVID One more psychiatry note before we wrap today. Just like our founding chair made headlines, so does our current one, an expert in the trifecta of insomnia, depression and suicide. Dr. McCall logically took a look at what COVID was doing to your fundamental ability to sleep. He looked specifically at you, our amazing health care workers, doctors, nurses, residents and fellows, and found some surprises. The anonymous survey indicates about a 44% increase in insomnia disorder — according to Dr. McCall, this disorder is not just a couple of nights of not sleeping but more consistent problems with not being able to get to sleep or stay asleep when you have ample opportunity to sleep. One surprise was that some of the worst problems were in the folks who were asked to work at home for a variety of reasons. He says that likely means that for many of us, while we may love home, working from home may actually be more stressful because of juggling responsibilities of both simultaneously. For many of you, that has included helping your children continue their education while doing your busy day job. But most of you surveyed were very much here and frontline in the care of patients for 30 or more hours per week. No doubt this pandemic, which continues to hover here and is currently wreaking unprecedented havoc in places like India, has been and is a major stressor for us all. So please remember to take care of yourselves as you take care of others and reach out to one of us, your colleagues, if you need us. Thank you once again for your incredible service in these unprecedented times.

Please keep washing your hands, keeping a safe distance, wearing a mask and get vaccinated so we can put this pandemic behind us.  

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