ome may see the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute of the University of Florida as a red-brick building bedecked with a cascade of iridescent triangles reflecting the institute’s brilliance inside and out. What Todd Golde sees is a transparent umbrella.
To Golde, the McKnight Brain Institute’s new executive director, that umbrella not only provides shelter to the four College of Medicine departments with offices and labs in the McKnight Brain Institute — neurology, neurosurgery, neuroscience and psychiatry — but it encompasses the nexus linking more than 300 investigators across all 16 UF colleges who are pursuing potentially transformative research related to neuroscience and the brain.
“We have a tremendous amount of talent and we are doing science of impact in the neurosciences, but not all of it is under the traditional MBI roof,” says Golde, MD, PhD, an internationally renowned expert in Alzheimer’s disease. “There’s a huge unmet medical need, whether we’re talking about brain tumors, neurodegenerative diseases, head injury or stroke. We can help create teams of scientists who will conduct world-class discovery research that can also impact patients.”
Together with deputy director Steven DeKosky, MD ’74, Golde is igniting a new era for UF’s 18-year-old brain institute, which was named in honor of a $15 million gift from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation in 2000. The McKnight Brain Institute has emerged as a premier research and educational center for the study of age-related memory loss, brain and spinal cord injury, neurodegenerative diseases, brain tumors and addiction.
Golde, 53, brings leadership experience gained as chair of the department of neuroscience at Mayo Clinic Florida and, for the last seven years, as founding director of UF’s Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, or CTRND, which he created and has expanded to include 16 investigators and more than a dozen postdocs and graduate research assistants.
“Todd is a very optimistic and transparent leader,” says David Borchelt, PhD, a professor of neuroscience who has worked side-by-side with Golde at the CTRND since 2009. “He likes to build consensus and get everybody moving in the same direction.”
Known as a thorough researcher who is on the leading edge of inflammatory processes in neurodegenerative diseases, Golde developed his love of science as a child.
Growing up on 300 acres in rural southern Delaware, where his parents had a nursery business, Golde spent his childhood collecting snakes, turtles and salamanders and, during the summers, fixing drip lines in greenhouses in 100-degree heat.
Boarding school in his teen years led him to Amherst College, where as a biology and immunology major he wrote a scientific research paper on gene regulatory sequences.
Golde’s research career was launched. “I really fell in love with it, and my professors encouraged me to look at an MD-PhD program,” he says.
At Case Western Reserve University, he joined the small lab of Steve Younkin, MD, PhD, who was studying Alzheimer’s disease.
“The research was so exciting,” Golde says. “Our lab was involved in a series of seminal papers that really laid the foundation for the amyloid hypothesis of Alzheimer’s disease.”
While at Case Western, Golde worked at a Veteran’s Affairs outpatient clinic as part of his medical training, gaining experience with neurologic diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to myotonic dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.
Now, at UF, he is principal investigator of the 1Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and in his new role as McKnight Brain Institute director, he will champion neuroscience and neuromedicine research across the UF campus.
“Philosophically, he doesn’t see lines and departments and colleges,” says Michael Okun, MD ’96, chair of the department of neurology. “He thinks bigger. He sees the broader spectrum of neurological diseases and wants to put people together and use the institute to encourage interactions not only with the researchers but with the community at large.”
And there is no time to lose.
With the 65-and-older population in Florida continuing to grow, so will the burden of neurologic illness.
“He doesn’t want potential therapies sitting in the laboratory — he wants them out there doing good,” Okun says.