Family members honor their brother’s memory with an endowed chair to fund research into rare and devastating brain disease.

When Tom Rickles learned that he had primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a rare neurodegenerative disease, he did not know the good that would ultimately come from such a devastating diagnosis. His courage has inspired his sister and brother-in-law, Liz and George Krupp, to create a legacy in his name to help others with the same condition.

Brad Dickerson, MD, director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit and the Neuroimaging Unit in the Department of Neurology/primary progressive aphasia
Brad Dickerson, MD

“We wanted to do something to ensure there will always be a place at Mass General that provides comprehensive, compassionate care and hope to patients and families with primary progressive aphasia,” said Ms. Krupp.

With this in mind, she and her husband have endowed the Tom Rickles Endowed Chair in Primary Progressive Aphasia at Massachusetts General Hospital. The first incumbent is Brad Dickerson, MD, director of the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit and the Neuroimaging Unit in the Department of Neurology.

PPA causes the deterioration of brain cells that are responsible for speech, language and behavior. It is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease that is related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Understanding Primary Progressive Aphasia

One of the challenges of effectively treating patients with diseases that affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, such as PPA, is that they often go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed as stress or depression. PPA is also a rare disease, which makes it difficult to get attention and research funding for it.

“My brother’s symptoms began with faltering speech,” Ms. Krupp said. “That was particularly frustrating for someone who taught Shakespeare to high school students.”

One of the challenges of effectively treating patients with diseases that affect the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, such as PPA, is that they often go undiagnosed or are misdiagnosed as stress or depression.

Lee Rickles, Mr. Rickles’ widow, said the last two years of their 34 years together were the most meaningful.

“Tom and I were committed to doing what we could for research,” Mrs. Rickles said. “We may not have had a chance but we participated in a clinical trial in the hope that the information will help someone else.”

Dr. Dickerson said that spirit of generosity motivates his work with patients and in his lab.

“I am so grateful for your faith in me, in this institution and in this research,” he said. “There are no barriers to great ideas here at Mass General. We can do something better together than we can do alone.”

Thanks to the Krupps’ generosity, Mr. Rickles’ legacy will live on. In a recent celebration held at the Paul S. Russell, MD Museum of Medical History and Innovation, Thomas Lynch, MD, CEO and chairman of the Mass General Physicians Organization, commended Dr. Dickerson’s work. “Brad is an excellent choice for this chair,” Dr. Lynch said. “He is a brilliant clinician and researcher, known for giving 100 percent to his patients and to his students.”

Working with a Collaborative Spirit

Merit Cudkowicz, MD, chair of the Department of Neurology, said Dr. Dickerson’s collaborative spirit has helped move research forward in a range of neurodegenerative diseases.

“We learn from each other,” she said. “We have found the places where different neurodegenerative diseases come together and help each other develop the tools to measure disease and set up clinical trials.”

Dr. Cudkowicz also thanked the Krupps for “trusting in our department.” She noted that Mr. Rickles received his care from Bruce Price, MD, chief of Neurology at McLean Hospital. Dr. Price was Dr. Dickerson’s mentor and recommended the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit at Mass General to the Krupps when they were looking for a way to help through a philanthropic gift.

Dr. Dickerson started the Frontotemporal Disorders Unit nearly a decade ago. With his background in biomedical engineering, he combines advanced imaging techniques to measure the differences between normal and abnormal changes in the brain to help diagnose and monitor the progression of brain disease.

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