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Potamkin Prize Honors Top Alzheimer's Researchers

Schuster, Larry

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Luba Potamkin would be proud that she is still making a difference. Although she died in 1994 of Pick's disease (a form of dementia that is sometimes confused with Alzheimer's disease), she was the inspiration for the Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick's, Alzheimer's and Related Diseases.

The $100,000 award, sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of Alzheimer's research, is given each year to leading researchers by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). Since its establishment in 1988, nearly $2 million has been awarded to a total of 39 researchers for their work in these diseases.

At a reception at its annual meeting in April, the AAN honored Luba's sons, Alan and Robert, who, along with their late father Victor, established the prize in 1988. Current and past winners of the Potamkin Prize were also honored.

Luba was a TV spokesperson for the family's chain of auto dealerships, the largest in America. She was particularly well known for the commercials she did for the New York Cadillac dealership in the 1970s. Devastated by her decline from a condition that was then poorly understood, the Potamkins were determined to find what caused this dementia and others like it, and to find ways to cure and prevent it.

“The biggest problem was a lack of recognition about the significance of the disease and how widespread it was,” says Robert Potamkin. “We wanted to draw more attention to it. Our interest was finding a cure as opposed to caretaking.”

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Alzheimer's Disease Once Considered Rare

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At the reception, speaker after speaker heralded the Potamkin family for their contribution. At the time the award was established, diseases such as Alzheimer's and Pick's were considered rare, said John H. Growdon, M.D., professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who chairs the subcommittee that administers the prize.

“The award has done extraordinary things for the field to push it forward and to recognize those people who made these incremental strides,” said Stanley Pruisner, M.D., professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Pruisner won the Potamkin Prize in 1991 and, six years later, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research showing that some malformed brain proteins (prions) can cause neighboring brain proteins to take on abnormal shapes as well, eventually causing dementia and death. The result is mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats or the rare Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in people.

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Honoring the 2005 Winners

In April, John C. Morris, M.D., and Ronald C. Petersen, Ph.D., M.D., received the 2005 Potamkin Prize for their work in identifying the earliest known changes that predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Their contributions suggest the possibility that doctors could one day identify and treat the changes in the brain long before signs of dementia appear.

Dr. Morris, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the University of Washington's School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., was recognized for his research showing that the presence of amyloid plaques (abnormal formations of protein in the brain), characteristic in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease, signal the onset of the disease possibly decades before clinical signs of dementia emerge.

Dr. Peterson, who is director of the Mayo Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minn., focuses on the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a disorder that he has helped define in which people develop memory problems beyond what would be expected for their age. Several drugs are being tested for their possible effects on MCI.

But the evening was dedicated to the memory of the lively and engaging Luba Potamkin. Leon Thai, M.D., chairman of the department of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego, who received the prize in 2004, treated Luba Potamkin in his office in New York. “She could always recite Cadillac ads with even the smallest cue,” he recalled.

Alan Potamkin reminisced about how the Potamkin Prize came to be. “At that time, we were speaking about an odd disease that no one was familiar with that was affecting a different generation, and today we're speaking about a very common disease that affects millions of our generation.”

The Potamkin Prize is one of the many programs sponsored by the AAN Foundation which raises funds to support education and research to improve the quality of life for people who have neurological diseases.

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What is Pick's Disease?

Pick's disease is a relatively rare progressive brain disease that accounts for only up to five percent of all cases of dementia. This disease affects the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Sometimes – but not always – people with Pick's disease experience memory problems. Often, though, they become apathetic, confused, and they may exhibit inappropriate social behavior. Pick's disease is progressive and people with it eventually lose the ability to function.

Pick's disease usually affects people between the ages of 40 and 60, although people younger or older than that may develop it. In the majority of cases, the exact cause of Pick's disease is not known; however, in about 10 to 20 percent of cases it is believed to be inherited.

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For more information on the American Academy of Neurology Foundation, click on www.neurofoundation.org

For more information on the Potamkin Prize, click on www.neurofoundation.org/public/chairs.cfm

For more information on Alzheimer's disease, click on www.thebrainmatters.org

For more information on Pick's disease, click on www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/picks/picks.htm

©2005 American Academy of Neurology

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