“Our mission is to innovate, to constantly find new answers. And no one is doing that better today than the people at Penn Medicine.” - Gordon Baltuch, MD
Many people describe Gordon Baltuch, MD, Director of the Center for Functional and Restorative Neurosurgery, as a man of vision. This is not surprising, considering the fact that he's been developing this skill since he was a boy.
When I was a child, I was very close to my grandfather, who was a physician in a very different time and place, Dr. Baltuch says, his eyes twinkling at the thought. “Sometimes he would go to patients’ houses. Sometimes patients would come to our house. On busy days, the living room became the waiting room. It was, at the end of the day, a very social experience.
It was there that I first realized I could see myself going into medicine.
With this goal in mind, he pursued an undergraduate degree at Harvard, knowing all along what the next step in his path would be. In medical school, he gravitated at first towards neuroscience, then towards the more unknown world of neurosurgery, which just happened to be a good fit. The wisdom of his choice of medical specialization was confirmed by his early experience working at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in the late 1980s, where he was fortunate to be able to witness firsthand and later take part in some of the leading-edge work of the day at the intersection of neuroscience and medicine.
Then, once again, he had a vision of new and greater possibilities in his chosen field. So, in 1994, he packed his bags and headed for Europe, where Professor Alim Louis Benabid was pioneering deep brain stimulation (DBS) therapy for Parkinson's disease.
The cause of Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system, was at that time and is to this day unknown. The death of dopamine-generating cells in the substantia nigra part of the brain leads to the motor symptoms that traditionally characterize Parkinson’s, beginning with shaking, rigidity and other movement-related manifestations. Cognitive and behavioral problems, even dementia, are associated with advanced stages of the disease. The accumulation of rogue proteins called alpha-synucleins, combined with the lack of healthy dopamine generation and activity, causes the circuitry of the midbrain to function in abnormal electrical patterns and sometimes, in severe cases, to cease functioning at all.