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World-Class Care for the Complex Brain

UW Medicine’s Neurosciences Institute provides exceptional care and conducts groundbreaking research to better understand and treat complex neurological issues.


Mysterious and complex, the brain regulates every body function, including thought, memory and learning — the very things that make you who you are and shape your perception of the world. The pleasant smell of a flower, remembering the name of your childhood friend or learning an unfamiliar word are neurological experiences processed by the brain through roughly 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses.

So when something goes wrong — like a brain tumor, Alzheimer’s disease or a stroke — the impact can be not only devastating for patients and their families, but incredibly challenging to treat. At the same time, these kinds of neurological conditions are on the rise. A recent study found that they’re now the leading cause of poor health globally, impacting 43% of the world’s population.

“There isn’t a single family that doesn’t have a neuroscience story,” says Dr. Thabele “Bay” Leslie-Mazwi, chair of UW Medicine’s Department of Neurology. “These diseases are common. And they pose extraordinary management challenges. Since the brain is the most complex structure in the known universe, neuroscience is the most complex area in medicine.”

Leslie-Mazwi notes that thanks to technological advances, we’re on the cusp of making significant progress to address these challenges. “This is such a unique time. We now have tools to understand the brain that didn’t exist before.”

Dr. Thabele

Dr. Thabele “Bay” Leslie-Mazwi

Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen

Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen

"Since the brain is the most complex structure in the known universe, neuroscience is the most complex area in medicine."

Pioneering Neurological Care

1948 – Dr. Arthur A. Ward develops a neurological division for the University of Washington School of Medicine.

1952 – Dr. Fred Plum is named head of Neurology.

1966 – Dr. Plum and Dr. Jerome Posner author their seminal book, “The Diagnosis of Stupor and Coma,” which is still in print and used by medical students today.

1970 – Neurologist Dr. August Swanson helps create a unique four-state community-based medical education program now called WWAMI, which currently spans Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho.

1974 – The world’s first Neurogenetics Clinic opens at the University of Washington and proceeds to define an entire new field in Clinical Neurosciences.

And the UW Medicine Neurosciences Institute (NSI) is in a position to take full advantage of this moment. Home to one of the largest and most experienced groups of neurologists and neurosurgeons in the Pacific Northwest, the NSI can treat more than 500 brain, spine and nervous system disorders. Care is provided across five hospitals: UW Medical Center – Montlake, UW Medical Center – Northwest, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle Children’s Hospital and the VA Puget Sound.

The NSI’s biggest challenge now is that the population of people needing services is growing exponentially, exceeding its current capacity just as discoveries are yielding once-unimaginable treatments.

Bringing together the best in brain health

The brain itself is a good analogy for understanding how the NSI works. Similar to the left and right hemispheres, which play separate roles but work seamlessly together, the main departments within the NSI are the Department of Neurology and the Department of Neurological Surgery.

Clinicians and healthcare professionals in the Department of Neurology diagnose and treat conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, epilepsy and headaches. The Department of Neurological Surgery provides advanced — and typically minimally invasive — surgery for people with sudden or chronic conditions like brain aneurysms or removal of brain tumors and blood clots. Together, they create a comprehensive care system.

Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, chair of the Department of Neurological Surgery, was key to the NSI’s formation two decades ago.

“We worked to bring together neurology and neurological surgery, and fostered deep partnerships with psychiatry, rehabilitation medicine — all the neuroscience-oriented departments — to tackle the most complex challenges for our patients. And we’ve become a wonderfully collegial and successful team recognized for our ability to care for patients with these complex conditions,” says Ellenbogen.

If, for example, a patient goes to Harborview with a stroke, they can get emergency surgery and then follow-up care from a neurologist or other subspecialist to treat all their related medical needs. Other conditions — like dementia — may not require surgery but still need a team to provide the necessary care.

Both departments also advance cutting-edge research and educate future neurologists and neurosurgeons. This allows the NSI to translate lab research into new therapies for patients and use feedback from clinicians to inform the research. Residents and fellows are then trained in the latest therapies for a wide array of neurological conditions, extending the impact further.

The Department of Neurological Surgery: A hub for innovation

“Often, people think in terms of, ‘I’m going to go to this place because it has a good doctor,’ or, ‘I like that hospital,’ but for any kind of neurological issue, you want an experienced team that does this all the time,” says Ellenbogen. “That’s what makes UW Medicine — and Harborview — unique in our region.”

Today, people who come to Harborview with sudden, life-threatening neurological emergencies have more options than ever before. A skilled neurosurgeon can use minimally invasive procedures, which typically involve smaller incisions and a shorter recovery time, to prevent an aneurysm from rupturing or treat stroke by removing a blood clot from the brain. Brain tumors can be treated with Gamma Knife radiosurgery. The NSI’s neurosurgeons have also pioneered the use of transcranial dopplers — portable ultrasound technology — to quickly and accurately study vessels in the brain that may have been damaged from a traumatic brain injury.

“When I go to another state or another country, and I say I work at Harborview, people smile because they know what that means — we have one of the best places for trauma and complex neurological conditions right here in our community,” says Ellenbogen.

In fact, when Ellenbogen’s wife (a nurse herself for 43 years) was involved in a car accident and wound up concussed, even though she was in front of another hospital, there was only one place she wanted to go: Harborview.

“She couldn’t remember her name, but she knew she needed to get to Harborview,” says Ellenbogen. But the Department of Neurological Surgery isn’t just implementing the latest technology and treatments — it’s creating them, too. The department holds 50 patents and has launched five spinoff companies.

Ellenbogen is the first to point out that the NSI’s approach to innovation has deep roots. The first chief of neurological surgery, Dr. Arthur A. Ward, was appointed in 1948, and he established the model of combining basic research within the clinical context. Over the next eight decades, the department pioneered a multidisciplinary approach to neuroscience care and research, conducted brain mapping, became an early adopter of imaging techniques, and initiated traumatic brain injury research. One of the Department of Neurological Surgery’s missions has been dedicated to training the next generation of neurosurgeons and neuroscientists.

“It’s a place where surgeons and scientists can be creative — even disruptive, in a good way — and do original things that advance patient-centric care and save lives,” says Ellenbogen.

The Department of Neurology: Unlocking the secrets of the brain

Last December, UW Medicine was chosen to be one of the first hospitals to administer the FDA-approved drug lecanemab. Research shows that it can help slow cognitive decline by 27% in people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. According to Leslie-Mazwi, it’s an important breakthrough and with time, technology and investment, only the beginning of what will be possible within the next decade.

“The complexity of the brain has led to our success as a species, but from a medical standpoint, it’s also what makes it incredibly difficult to treat and why progress has taken so much time,” says Leslie-Mazwi. “But the more we learn about how the brain works, the more we’ll be able to understand how to fix it, or better yet, prevent neurological disease from happening in the first place.”

Leading the Field

In 1993, Harborview became the first hospital in the region to offer nonsurgical treatment of brain tumors through a Gamma knife.

The Department of Neurosurgery pioneered minimally invasive procedures in cerebrovascular, skull base and pediatric surgery.

Harborview was chosen to be one of the first West Coast hospitals to administer the breakthrough Alzheimer’s drug lecanemab in December 2023.

Patients with complex neurological conditions have been referred to Harborview from across the nation and 38 other countries.

The NSI partners with world-renowned institutions in the region, including the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Fred Hutch Cancer Center, the Garvey Institute for Brain Health Solutions and Seattle Children’s. It also maintains strong partnerships with other institutions on the West Coast, including UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley.

"Everyone here is so passionate about saving lives every day, on an individual patient level and at a scientific level that impacts people across the nation and the world. Together, we can radically transform the future for people facing neurological disease."

That understanding will have implications for a wide range of neurological diseases. For example, the tau protein, which is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s, is also present in pathological forms in patients with Parkinson’s disease and those with traumatic brain injuries.

“An exciting aspect for us to explore is some of these points of commonality,” Leslie-Mazwi says. “When we find a key, we discover that it can open many doors.”

It wasn’t an accident that patients in our region were among the first to be able to receive lecanemab. Having participated in some of the studies leading up to the FDA approval, the department had the foresight to prepare for its approval — and because of the breadth of its mission that encompasses clinical care, research and education, the ability to quickly administer it to patients.

“For a disease-modifying therapy like this, it’s not as simple as a patient going to their local pharmacy to pick up a prescription or maybe to a clinic for a treatment,” says Leslie-Mazwi. “First, you need to identify appropriate patient candidates, which requires biomarker and imaging work. You must have skilled neurologists, a clinic that can administer the medication intravenously every two weeks, imaging follow-up, specialty pharmacy support, and researchers who can properly collect and interpret the data. It takes a full team of experts.”

That level of expertise was, in part, what drew Leslie-Mazwi to UW Medicine and what keeps him and many other world-class scientists and clinicians here. “One of the things that I’m always so impressed by is the creativity and commitment of all the people engaged in this work here, to maximize our resources — we are a public university and we are making a massive positive impact on the world.”

The Benefit for Harborview Medical Center

The Benefit fundraising event, coming in November 2024, will help raise awareness of and expand our world-class Neurosciences Institute at Harborview. With generous donor support, we can enhance our neurosciences team and programs, ensuring that everyone can access state-of-the art care for the best possible outcomes. Learn more at

An opportunity to provide hope and options to more patients

Donor support and volunteer engagement have helped make the NSI what it is today. Philanthropy has allowed its researchers to test concepts and gather data, which, in turn, has helped land the federal grants that supercharge discovery and impact. The donor community has supported clinical care and the development of programs for patients and their families who are navigating the physical and emotional impact of complex neurological conditions. And donors have helped train the next generation of neuroscience leaders.

However, the current volume of patients in need of services has stretched the NSI to the limit, with an anticipated surge on the horizon. New and promising therapies require expert clinicians, facilities and equipment to administer them. To give patients more answers and options, the NSI must dramatically accelerate research that translates into lifesaving treatments.

Ellenbogen is certain the NSI — with donor support — can meet the needs of our community and push the entire field forward.

“Everyone here is so passionate about saving lives every day, on an individual patient level and at a scientific level that impacts people across the nation and the world,” says Ellenbogen. “Together, we can radically transform the future for people facing neurological disease.”

Written by Nicole Beattie

Give Hope to Patients with Neurological Conditions

Your gift to the Neurosciences Institute Fund can expand access to expert neurological care, advance cutting-edge research, and help train the next generation of neuroscientists who can provide hope to patients.