VA Geriatric Research: UAMS/VA Work to Improve Veterans’ Health

David Robinson

Prasad Padala, M.D., who is searching for novel ways to improve health in aging veterans, leads a visitor into a clinic room with the only magnetic stimulator of its kind in Arkansas that’s known for its effective treatment of depression.  

The Neuronetics Transcranial Magnetic Stimulator was purchased to help entice Padala, a research psychiatrist specializing in geriatrics, to UAMS from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. The device, still relatively new to psychiatric medicine, creates magnetic fields that safely stimulate nerve cells in the brain. 

“It is effective up to 90 percent of the time treating depression, and it could potentially benefit patients with other psychiatric conditions,” Padala said. 

A  Psychiatric Research Institute and Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics researcher in the UAMS College of Medicine, Padala conducts clinical research and is associate director of clinical programs at the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) at the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHS) in North Little Rock. 

In addition to depression, Padala sees patients with dementia, known to cause behavioral problems including a profound loss of motivation. By stimulating a certain area of the brain, Padala hopes to improve motivation in dementia patients who consent to the research. He also hopes to use the device to stimulate memory areas of the brain to improve memory.    

“I’ve seen some preliminary results and it’s very exciting,” he said. 

In addition to addressing behavioral problems in dementia, the GRECC is involved in numerous projects related to exercise and nutrition. 

The GRECC’s cutting-edge geriatrics research for both UAMS and the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs is an example of the fruit that’s bearing from the vision of Eugene Towbin, M.D., who in 1968 became chief of staff of the then-Little Rock VA Hospital (now CAVHS) and associate dean of the UAMS College of Medicine. 

At the time, Towbin saw the coming wave of aging WWII veterans, and he led the establishment of the country’s first Geriatric Research and Education Center at the Little Rock VA in 1972. 

“We can help prevent health crises that would land them in the hospital or costly long- term care programs.”

The geriatrics medical specialty was born, and medical schools across the country began to establish departments of geriatrics. Towbin was one of the founders of UAMS’ nationally leading geriatrics program. 

“Dr. Towbin was among the first to realize the tremendous opportunity for improving geriatric care by linking the VA with research medical centers like UAMS,” said Dennis Sullivan, M.D., director of the GRECC and vice chair for clinical research at the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Department of Geriatrics.

“We now have 20 GRECCs nationwide, and all of them are partnered with academic medical institutions.”

Each GRECC has a research, education and clinical component. They’re meant to attract scientists and health science students to the field of geriatrics to expand the knowledge of aging, disseminate discoveries and innovations to providers, and improve the quality of care.

Since Towbin’s vision was realized, many of the geriatric clinical programs at UAMS have their roots in evidence-based programs developed at the GRECC, including the use of home-based primary care and adult foster care. 

“These programs started at the VA and have been adopted by UAMS and others around the country,” Padala said. “We can help the elderly remain in their homes and prevent health crises that would land them in the hospital or costly long-term care programs.”