Jeffrey Cummings & Kate Zhong: Doctors on the Front Lines of Brain Disease Research and Treatment

A DECEMBER-EVENING COCKTAIL MIXER inside the beautiful Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in downtown Las Vegas brings together doctors from the Southern Nevada medical community. The Frank Gehry-designed structure (along with World Market Center and the soon-to-be-unveiled Smith Center for the Performing Arts) infuses Las Vegas’ urban core with scientific, intellectual and cultural activity. Of course, it’s people, not buildings, who grow a community, and two individuals present tonight, Dr. Jeffrey Cummings and Dr. Kate Zhong, are currently waging a massive fight against brain disease.

They also happen to be a striking couple.

Arguably the world’s leading scientific brain-health researchers, Drs. Cummings and Zhong know how to dress the part. Cummings could be mistaken for a distinguished, fashion-savvy British intelligence agent, while his gorgeous wife wouldn’t seem out of place cast as a chic scientist from a James Bond film. The strapless lavender dress Zhong wears indicates she doesn’t often give in to the temptation of a fast-food drive-thru.

“We’re not your typical science-fixated couple,” laughs Zhong. “In addition to being good researchers, we have a vast interest in and knowledge of fashion, literature, art. We’ve traveled Egypt, India, South America, Europe, and China, of course.”

Zhong is originally from China, where she began attending medical school there at 16. She became a doctor at 22, although she was performing surgeries and delivering babies at 20. “From a very young age I always loved medicine,” says. Zhong. “There are many doctors in my family – dentists, physicians.”

She earned a scholarship to complete her psychiatric residency at University of Toronto, Canada, where she also polished off a Masters degree in pharmacology. Afterward, Zhong worked in the pharmaceutical industry, leading clinical research and advanced-treatment trials for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenic disorders. She currently serves as the Cleveland Clinic’s Senior Director of Clinical Research and Development, overseeing the largest clinical trial platform for Alzheimer’s research in the country with four sites – Vegas, two in Cleveland, and one in Florida.

“The more patients come into a trial, the faster you’re able to decide if the drug is working,” she explains.  “The power of the Cleveland Clinic is to rely on multiple sites so we can consolidate the rate at which we discover new diagnoses and treatments.”

“As the clinic’s director, I decide the right things to do,” adds her husband. “As the leader of the clinical trials, Kate makes sure we do things right.”

Dr. Jeffrey Cummings grew up in Wyoming, punching cattle like any other kid growing up in Big Sky Country. He was also deeply interested in philosophy and paleontology. “Dinosaur fossils were all around me as a kid,” he explains. “I’d just pick up all of these bones off the ground and examine them in the field.  These experiences are what got me interested in biology, and in the philosophy of biology.”

After studying medicine at Boston University, Cummings researched neuropathology and neuro-psychiatry on a fellowship in London. He authored the Neuropsychiatric Inventory; a scale that lets doctors know if a drug is improving an Alzheimer’s patient’s behavior. The NPI became very popular and is now used in almost all clinical trials of the disease.

After that breakthrough, Cummings’ career shifted from studying the disease to studying and measuring the effect of drugs on Alzheimer’s. Given this accomplishment and Cummings’ keen fashion sense, it’s no wonder this “Rock Star of Science” has been featured in slick magazines like GQ, Vogue, and Vanity Fair.

“I was in charge of a Parkinson’s research project, and Jeff was assigned to be my scientific advisor,” says Zhong of how she met Cummings. “My project boss told me:  ‘It’ll be difficult to get Cummings on board; his schedule is so busy.’ Well, Jeff made plenty of time for me.”

“So as her advisor,” says Cummings, “I advised her to marry me.”

Their combined knowledge led to one unexpected factor benefit – they would be aware of how to keep each other fit and in good brain health more than just about any other married couple in medicine. “We do as much as we can,” says Cummings. “We try to maintain a healthy diet and almost never have red meat at home.”

Zhong smiles. “He’s better at exercise than I am,” she admits. “We both supplement our diet with antioxidants.”

Brain health is a lifetime commitment, the doctors insist, and the most critical one you can make. It’s never too late to exercise your brain and body, and to improve your diet. Making positive changes can help you at every point in your life.

It’s important to note that any brain activity counts, even sudoko. “It’s just one form of brain exercise, but if you combine it with additional activities, a good diet and daily exercise, you can help reduce your chances,” says Cummings.

“I consider myself very fortunate,” says Zhong. “I love what I’m doing here in Las Vegas, and the driving force behind the center happens to be my husband. He’s the icing on the cake. People consider him the leader, the visionary pushing the center forward. But I have a personal knowledge of and respect for him. I’m the president of his fan club, because I understand him professionally and as a human being.”

“I see Kate as a fantastic partner, and she brings a dimension of power to the center we wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Cummings. “I value her leadership tremendously.”

Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.