Neuroscientist revealed threat of Alzheimer’s

Times Staff Writer

Dr. Robert Katzman, the UC San Diego neuroscientist who pushed Alzheimer’s disease into the public consciousness as a “major killer” and who co-founded the activist Alzheimer’s Assn., died Tuesday at his home in La Jolla after a long illness. He was 82.

Katzman played a major role in making San Diego one of the major centers for Alzheimer’s research in the United States, if not the world, bringing prominent neuroscientists and major funding to a program that had been virtually nonexistent before his arrival in 1984.

“His pioneering and, really, revolutionary work in Alzheimer’s disease for more than three decades paved the way for clinical trials of potential treatments to delay the onset or progression of the disease being done today,” said neuroscientist David Salmon of UC San Diego.


Alzheimer’s was first described in 1906 by the Bavarian psychiatrist Dr. Alois Alzheimer. But it was considered to be a rare form of senile dementia that occurred primarily in patients younger than 65.

During the 1960s, Katzman studied many dementia patients, especially the elderly, and concluded that they had Alzheimer’s.

In a seminal 1976 editorial in the journal Archives of Neurology, Katzman concluded that senile dementia was not a normal part of the aging process, as had been believed, but that it was a disease -- in fact, Alzheimer’s disease.

Extrapolating from estimates of the prevalence of dementia, he concluded that Alzheimer’s was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, trailing only heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Katzman’s efforts increased the number of Alzheimer’s cases many-fold and challenged the long-held idea that growing old was the primary cause of dementia, sociologist Patrick Fox of UC San Francisco wrote in the Milbank Quarterly. These ideas provided the ammunition “to define the disease as a major social and health problem and to mobilize the resources to address the defined problem,” he wrote.

Funding for Alzheimer’s research grew from $5 million in 1980 to $647 million in 2005.

In 1977, Katzman and his close colleague Dr. Robert D. Terry of UC San Diego organized the first national conference on Alzheimer’s disease, triggering a boom in research. In 1981, he and his colleagues formed the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Assn. -- later renamed the Alzheimer’s Assn. -- which has become a major source of private funding for research and an advocate for patients.

Robert Katzman was born Nov. 29, 1925, in Denver, the son of a physician. He served in the Navy during World War II as an electronic technician’s mate, then enrolled in the University of Chicago. There, he became interested in the chemistry of the brain, but because there were no classes on the topic, he enrolled in Harvard Medical School, earning his degree in 1953.

After a residency at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, he joined the faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where he spent 30 years before finishing his career at La Jolla.

Although his research focused on brain chemistry, his interests were diverse. He began studying brain electrolytes and experimental models of brain swelling, then moved on to study the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain.

In 1984, he was recruited as chairman of the department of neurosciences at UC San Diego. That year, he wrote the grant proposal that resulted in the creation of the university’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, one of only five such centers in the country.

At San Diego, he led a pioneering study in China that showed that higher education delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Another study also found that a higher brain capacity enabled the brain to fight off the disease longer.

Katzman officially retired in 2002 but continued to participate in research and case conferences at the university hospital.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, the former Nancy Bernstein; two sons, David of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Daniel of Clayton, Calif.; and a grandson.