Noted UCSD Alzheimer's Expert Killed in Plane Crash

    Leon J. Thal, an international pioneer in Alzheimer’s disease research and beloved member of the UCSD community, died on the evening of Feb. 3, when his private plane crashed in a mountainous area southwest of Borrego Springs, Calif.

    Leon J. Thal UCSD Alzheimer’s Disease Researcher

    Thal was piloting his Mooney M20 airplane, which took off from San Diego’s Montgomery Field at 6:15 p.m. His plane crashed due to unknown circumstances.

    California Civil Air Patrol received a distress signal from Thal’s airplane at about 10 p.m., and local sheriff’s deputies reached the crash site by helicopter at 1 a.m. and confirmed that Thal had died in the crash. There were no passengers on board his plane. Thal was 62 years old.

    The National Transportation Safety Board has taken over the investigation of the plane crash, but was unable to release any further details concerning the accident as of press time.

    “”Dr. Thal’s death has left a gaping hole that no single person could ever hope to fill,”” said Jacqueline Bochenek, director of the clinical trials administration at UCSD. “”He was a strong-minded, passionate and enthusiastic leader who worked more diligently than any other person I’ve ever met.””

    Thal’s dedication to his research on Alzheimer’s disease was unrivaled, and his devotion was exemplified through continuous involvement and commitment to his work. He was the chair of the department of neurosciences, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study and a distinguished professor at UCSD.

    Thal was one of the world’s leading experts in the development of new therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, directing over 70 research centers throughout the United States and Canada since 1991. Thal also managed the UCSD Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and oversaw more than $100 million in federal grants used to fund research projects over the past 30 years.

    “”Leon Thal was a giant professionally,”” Michael Weiner, director for the Center for Imaging of Neurological Disease, and longtime friend of Thal, stated in an e-mail. “”He was brilliant, driven and had a wonderful spirit and very high standards of excellence when it came to his work.””

    Thal began his career at UCSD in 1985, when he joined the faculty as an associate professor. After being promoted to professor in 1989, he became chair of neurosciences in 1993. From 2002 to 2006, Thal served on the National Institute of Aging Advisory Council as a permanent adviser to the Food and Drug Administration.

    As ADCS director, Thal investigated new methods for conducting dementia research and testing drugs for their effectiveness in slowing down the progression and treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The ADCS was recently awarded $52 million by the National Institute on Aging to continue its research and clinical trials on Alzheimer’s disease, and more than 4,600 people have participated in its studies so far.

    “”The clinical trials and the cooperative studies Dr. Thal conducted at ADCS were a novel idea that no one had ever even conceived of before,”” said Mary Sundsmo, program manager of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, who had worked closely with Thal.

    Bochenek was the first person Thal hired at the ADCS back in 1991. For over 15 years, she worked closely with Thal and had a first-hand account of his dedication to his work, along with his efforts to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

    “”Dr. Thal led ADCS by example more than anything else,”” Bochenek said. “”He instilled in us the drive and desire to always do our best, just as he always did.””

    Thal is survived by his wife, Donna Thal, a distinguished professor emeritus at San Diego State University.

    Plans for his memorial service are still pending. The Imperial/San Diego Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association is establishing a memorial fund in Thal’s honor, with all contributions designated for research on Alzheimer’s in San Diego.

    “”Although his death has created a huge void, it has also inspired us to carry on his legacy,”” Sundsmo said. “”He has given us the resolve to move forward and continue doing everything we can to stop Alzheimer’s disease, just as he would have wanted.””

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