Dr. John Morris is the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Distinguished Professor of Neurology, Professor of Pathology and Immunology, Professor of Physical Therapy, and Professor of Occupational Therapy at Washington University in St. Louis. He also is the Director and Principal Investigator of the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, as well as the Memory and Aging Project. Dr. Morris received his MD from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and completed his Residency in Internal Medicine at Akron General Medical Center and his Chief Residency in Neurology and Residency in Neuropathology at the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital. He then spent some time in private practice and later as an emergency room physician. Dr. Morris first came to Washington University for a postdoctoral fellowship and joined the faculty soon after. Dr. Morris has received many awards and honors during his career, including the Distinguished Achievement Citation from Ohio Wesleyan University where he completed his undergraduate education, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Alzheimer’s Association, the Potamkin Prize for Research in Pick’s Alzheimer’s, and Related Disease from the American Academy of Neurology, the Carl and Gerti Cori Faculty Achievement Award from Washington University, the Peter Raven Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Science St. Louis, and the Washington University School of Medicine Second Century award. In this interview, he shares stories about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:58)
When he isn’t working, Dr. Morris enjoys spending time with family, reading a wide variety of books, and cycling on some of the fantastic bike paths in the St. Louis area.
The Scientific Side (3:57)
Much of Dr. Morris’s research has been focused on understanding the process of the development of Alzheimer’s disease, compared to the process of normal brain aging. One of his major goals is to understand the causes of Alzheimer’s disease so that we can develop new therapies to treat and prevent this disease.
A Dose of Motivation (6:23)
Dr. Morris acknowledges that he is incredibly privileged to be doing the work that he does. He is motivated by the importance of the research they are doing to improve the lives of older adults as well as the dedication of the scientists, researchers, and volunteers that he works with.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:47)
Growing up, Dr. Morris never really considered the possibility that he wouldn’t pursue a career in medicine. His father was a retired physician, and his mother was a retired nurse, so studying medicine seemed like a natural choice for his own career. While Dr. Morris admits that he wasn’t the most diligent medical student, his subsequent training experiences and the mentors he worked with had a big impact in shaping his career. About a year after finishing medical school, he was recruited to serve as a physician in Fairbanks, Alaska to help treat people who were coming from all over the world to build the Alaska Pipeline in the 1970s. At the time, Dr. Morris was having second thoughts about whether he actually wanted to dedicate his life to being a physician. Fortunately, it turned out that he really enjoyed practicing medicine. A series of exceptional mentors during residency and fellowship opportunities that followed piqued his interest in neurology, dementia, and academic research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (17:08)
One of the quandaries that Dr. Morris encountered early in his career is that their neuropathology assessments during the autopsies of people who had shown no symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease revealed that about one third of these individuals actually had the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains. This was a really unexpected finding. Dr. Morris and his colleagues were left wondering if they had somehow failed to detect symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease when these individuals were alive or whether Alzheimer’s disease might be a chronic disorder that starts developing decades before symptoms can be detected. With additional research, they determined the latter was the case, and they developed the concept of “pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease”. During this stage of the disease, pathologic lesions begin occurring in the brain, and symptoms may not be detected until decades later once the damage reaches a particular tipping point. This discovery introduced an entirely new set of challenges because it meant that they would need to be able to recognize these brain changes in healthy people earlier in life if they wanted to have a chance of preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
A Shining Success! (21:23)
In 2012, Dr. Morris and his colleagues launched the first ever clinical trial of a medication to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in a cohort of people who were determined to be at high risk of developing the disease. It was so exciting to see that the work they had been doing over the past few decades to understand the mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease, identify treatment targets, and develop therapeutics was finally to the point of having an impact on potentially preventing this disease in people who did not yet have any detectable symptoms.
Book Recommendations (23:36)
Alzheimer: The Life of a Physician and the Career of a Disease by Konrad Maurer and Ulrike Maurer
Most Treasured Travel (25:29)
Dr. Morris has travelled around the world to meet with colleagues and share his research. Some of his most memorable moments on these trips included exploring the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, seeing the Great Wall of China, visiting the Taj Mahal in India, and witnessing the splendor of the pyramids in Egypt.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (30:14)
Dr. Morris and one of his colleagues were co-recipients of the prestigious Potamkin Prize from the American Academy of Neurology, and they were interviewed in advance of the award ceremonies. The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Dr. Roger Bannister, one of the world’s most eminent neurologists who also holds the distinction of being the first ever person recorded running a sub-4-minute mile. The last question of the Dr. Morris’s interview was about advice that could help junior investigators be successful, and he talked about the importance of working hard, aligning with good people, and collaborating. At that point, Dr. Morris thought the interview had concluded, and he added a joke about how it didn’t hurt that in his case he was devilishly handsome. He was quite surprised when that statement was included in the interview video that was later played during Dr. Bannister’s keynote speech. However, Dr. Morris’s joke ended up being well-received by the audience, and even Dr. Bannister looked over at him and told him that he was indeed incredibly handsome.
Advice For Us All (32:32)
In science, there are sometimes major breakthroughs that occur when people are very gifted, very lucky, or both. However, in most cases, science advances incrementally, building on the work that you and others have done. Maintain focus on your ideas, be persistent, and incorporate the talents of other people through collaborations to find success in science.
Dr. Morris is an internationally renown researcher on Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of his more than 30 year career in research, he and his team have conducted pioneering research on early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease as well as the development of new treatments for this devastating disease. In addition to his faculty and research appointments, Dr. Morris is a board member for the St. Louis Chapter of the Alzheimer Association, Director for the American Academy of Neurology, and Chair of the Clinical Task Force for the National Institute of Aging’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. Research interests of Dr. Morris include healthy aging and Alzheimer dementia, antecedent biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease in nondemented elderly to evaluate risk for Alzheimer dementia, and trials of investigational drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer dementia. Dr. Morris has authored or coauthored 4 books and more than 400 published articles (current h-index 95). Dr. Morris is a member of several professional societies and serves also on numerous scientific and community advisory boards. He is ranked in the top 1% of investigators in the field of Neuroscience and Behavior by Essential Science Indicators database.
*This episode was originally released on June 14, 2014