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The 2023 Vanscoy Winter Academy focused on demystifying the brain

  • Health and Wellness
  • Innovation and Research
  • School of Medicine

Nearly 300 alumni and friends of the University of Pittsburgh gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort in Naples, Florida, on March 9 for the Vanscoy Winter Academy to learn about life-changing breakthroughs in research and clinical care in the final frontier of the human body — the brain.

This year’s theme, “Brain Matters,” focused on promising advancements in neurology and neuroscience at the University alongside clinical partners at UPMC, highlighting how each organization is working to find answers, cures and solutions to humankind’s most complex questions.

“As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist myself, I’m particularly enthusiastic about the theme ‘Brain Matters,’” said Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine Anantha Shekhar. “Within our body, the brain is the final frontier. With our new technologies and interventions, we are working to demystify this organ to uncover amazing truths and new ways to help numerous others through our research.”

Research on pressing health issues

School of Medicine faculty members Ethan A. Rossi, Rebecca B. Price and Matthew T. Starr presented an insider’s perspective on their cutting-edge work during the event.

To begin the journey into the brain, Rossi touched on the “windows” to the brain, the eyes. The Department of Ophthalmology is using novel imaging techniques to examine individual structures of the eye — down to the smallest cells at the very back of the eye — to define the microscopic structure of a healthy retina, detect and monitor the progression of diseases, evaluate treatment efficacy and ultimately, tailor personalized treatments for patients.

Price’s presentation focused on interventions for two of the most prevalent health conditions: depression and anxiety. Traditional antidepressant medications may not be effective for all patients, but research indicates ketamine infusions can be used to quickly treat individuals with treatment-resistant depression. Unfortunately, benefits from these treatments tend to be short-lived, lasting only weeks after the initial infusion. To lengthen the positive effects, Price is combining a single dose of ketamine with a sessions of automated self-association training (for example, pairing positive words and visual cues). This method was shown to prolong depression relief for up to three months.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for me as a researcher to connect with a community of individuals and share my research,” said Price. “I’ve heard from many members of the mental health community who are grateful for this support.”

To close out the programming, Starr presented on strokes. With the high prevalence of strokes in the United States, it is critically important for researchers to identify the different causes of strokes and to create and implement novel interventions to reduce harmful effects of a stroke.

The brains behind the event

“[The Vanscoy Winter Academy] is a chance to hear about the latest and greatest scientific research in progress at the University, sometimes before publication,” said host committee member Marti Jenner. “My grandma used to tell me to learn something new every day and I’d always stay young.”

According to Susie Shipley, president of Huntington Bank for the Western Pennsylvania and Ohio Valley region, the Vanscoy Winter Academy aligns perfectly with the mission of presenting sponsor Huntington Bank. “At Huntington, our purpose is to improve lives. We partner with institutions that are pursuing ways to make lives better and that’s why we are so passionate about working with the University of Pittsburgh. By bringing together all of the pieces of the puzzle, we can improve the lives of those in our region and globally.”

Over nearly two decades, this annual winter event has become an anticipated tradition for the University, drawing hundreds of attendees each year. Speakers at past events have presented breakthrough findings on critical topics in health care, ranging from cancer and vaccines to aging and opioid use.

Thanks to a major commitment from Dr. Gordon J. Vanscoy (PHARM ’84, KGSB ’91) and his wife, Bethann, in 2022, this event will be held annually in Naples for the next two decades. The Vanscoys’ history of philanthropy to the University includes the creation of a fund to support the Dr. Gordon J. Vanscoy School of Pharmacy White Coat ceremony, establishment of the Vanscoy Endowed Chair and support for numerous undergraduate and graduate scholarships.

“Gordon and Bethann have been outstanding friends to Pitt over the years, and I’m grateful for their commitment to this signature event,” said Senior Vice Chancellor for Philanthropic and Alumni Engagement Kris Davitt. “The Vanscoy Winter Academy has always been a wonderful opportunity for Pitt health sciences alumni and friends to come together. We look forward to collaborating with our founding sponsors and offering dynamic programming for years to come.”

Don’t forget to mark your calendars for next year’s event — the 2024 Vanscoy Winter Academy is planned for Feb. 15.


— Sierra Smith