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Shedding New Light on the Mechanisms of Depression
George Wiegers knows firsthand of the devastation psychiatric illness can wreak on a family. As a teenager growing up in the 1950s, he witnessed his mother suffer through the mood swings and confusion of bipolar disorder, helped only in part by the therapies available at the time.
"As I made my way through life I knew that I wanted to do something about depression and was searching for a meaningful way to help," he says.
As a result, Wiegers has been deeply involved in supporting patient care and outreach programs for depression, a misunderstood and pervasive condition that affects one in 20 adult Americans. It was John Snyder, '59, MD, a personal friend and Stanford alumnus, who suggested that he meet a Stanford researcher whose work is making dramatic inroads into revealing the neural processes behind mood disorders like depression and bipolar disease.
The result of their meeting is an enduring partnership and a pledge of $2.5 million from the Wiegers family to launch the Depression Optogenetics Center, a program that applies a breakthrough technology that uses light to identify and control the activity of individual neurons in the brain.
Wiegers has pledged his support to the center over five years, a long-term commitment that will be used to cover some of the costs of equipment and stipends for scientists, engineers, and fellows.
Directed by Karl Deisseroth, PhD '98, MD '00, the D. H. Chen Professor and a professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, the center's researchers have been able to turn neurons on and off by sending bursts of light to activate different areas of the brain and then observe the effects on behavior. Deisseroth, a practicing psychiatrist who specializes in treating medication-resistant depression, developed optogenetics eight years ago, and he has since shared the technology with thousands of scientists around the world. In 2010 the medical journal Science called it the "Breakthrough of the Decade."
"It's an amazing combination of medicine and science and engineering," says Wiegers, an investment banker and avid fly fisherman who lives in Vail, Colorado. "The center has the potential to do extraordinary things, and I wanted to be part of it. It will change the lives of millions of people."
Progress in understanding the mechanisms of depression has been slow because of the brain's complexity, Deisseroth says. How its billions of interconnected neurons interact to create memories, feelings, and thoughts—and what can go awry—remains one of medicine's deepest mysteries.
"The Depression Optogenetics Center will help to develop the tools and technologies researchers need to track the biological processes behind depression and to better understand what is going on in a patient's brain," he adds. "We have a 10-year vision for the center, and Mr. Wiegers was courageous enough to share it. The insights from our work may lead to the development of more effective drugs and other interventions."
For Wiegers, partnering with a bold research initiative is a complement to his ongoing support of clinical care for depression. About five years ago, he helped establish the National Network of Depression Centers, a consortium of more than 20 of the country's leading medical centers—including Stanford—to develop and implement best practices for the diagnosis and treatment of depression and other mood disorders. By helping the group with funding and developing a business plan, Wiegers is allowing the network to identify best practices, provide specialty advice to family practitioners, and develop strategies to refine treatment for patients.