Dr. Carlson’s underlying research focus has been the application of formal and molecular mouse genetics to advance the understanding of susceptibility to neurodegenerative diseases. He took over as Director of McLaughlin in 1988. At the time, the research institute had only a single faculty member and a small facility. But under his leadership, the institute has grown significantly, both in personnel and research facilities, to achieve a global reputation.
McLaughlin Research Institute is now recognized internationally as a leader in the application of mouse genetics to the understanding of susceptibility to neurological and other diseases in humans. Work done at MRI helped revolutionize our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Dr. Carlson has served on a number of public advisory panels and currently is a member of the Board of Directors of the University of Minnesota’s Bud Grossman Center for Memory Research and Care. Biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, such as Celltech and Amgen, also have called on his expertise in mouse genetics. Most recently, Nobel Laureate and long-time collaborator Stan Prusiner said of Dr. Carlson in his book Madness and Memory, “Though shy and quiet, this self-effacing man was a brilliant scientist whose modesty almost always was inappropriate.”
Dr. Carlson is especially proud of the institute’s sponsorship of summer internships for Montana high school students and undergraduates and also offers research and curriculum development programs for area teachers. In fact, the majority of the biology teachers in Great Falls have worked at the institute.
MRI scientists have been long-time leaders in the study of deadly, brain-wasting diseases, and one of their latest projects is working on finding the answer to a hereditary disease called fatal familial insomnia (FFI). Though an extremely rare disease affecting roughly 100 people worldwide, Dr. Carlson explained that with the “inability to sleep, you start becoming demented, losing consciousness, inability to recognize your loved ones—like Alzheimer’s, except death occurs within a year of diagnosis.”
MRI has partnered with the Prion Alliance, a foundation started after a woman watched her mother die from FFI and knows that she now faces the same fate. Dr. Carlson says the research into FFI will not only benefit the small affected population but could lead to discoveries that would have an impact on much more common diseases.
“Now we know that the mechanisms involved in prion disorders are how Alzheimer’s, for example, spreads from one part of the brain to the other. Other diseases like Parkinson’s spread from one part of the nervous system to the other.” – Dr. George Carlson