A decade in, Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has exceeded expectations

Dr. Marwan Sabbagh is director of the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

When the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health opened a decade ago, it would have been difficult to forecast the facility’s success.

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“The idea of brain health and the idea of prevention, those were crazy ideas 10 years ago, but now they’re part of what we do,” said Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, the center’s director. “The field has advanced, and we’ve gone from being non-existing to being front and center in the conversation.”

When it opened in 2009, the center had about three dozen employees. As it celebrates its 10-year anniversary this month, it has nearly five times that, and as Sabbagh puts it, a place among the top brain health research and care facilities anywhere.

“We’re one of the major drivers … right here in Las Vegas,” Sabbagh said. “When people want to know what the next big thing is with brain health, they turn to us. That’s why I came here. You can be an observer, a participant or a leader, and we’re a leader.”

Sabbagh himself is also a leader in his field and came to the Valley in early 2018 from the Barrow Neurological Institute at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix.

The Ruvo Center, which initially expected about 5,000 patient visits per year, had nearly 30,000 visits in 2018.

“We’ll blow well past that number for 2019,” Sabbagh said. “We’ve grown beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. We’re going to keep growing, too.”

That growth has surpassed everything for which businessman and founder Larry Ruvo could have hoped.

The idea was born in the 1990s when Ruvo and his wife, Camille, felt that his father, the center’s namesake, wasn’t receiving top-tier treatment for his Alzheimer’s.

Ruvo wanted to build a facility in San Diego initially, where the late Leon Thal, a respected Alzheimer’s expert at the University of California San Diego, was practicing.

“In a short period of time, Larry Ruvo was able to raise about $30 million, and he wanted to build a center at UC San Diego,” Sabbagh said. “Dr. Thal said to save some money and build something in Las Vegas. At the time [in the late’ 90s], that was a wild, over-the-moon idea, but that’s what Larry did.”

After partnering with renowned architect Frank Gehry, who had long been a Huntington’s disease research advocate, the idea became reality, and construction of the West Bonneville Avenue building began in 2007.

Today, there are four Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health facilities in the U.S., and plans call for a fifth to open in the United Arab Emirates.

“My wife and I had a very big dream,” Ruvo said. “It’s been amazing what has happened. Today, Nevada has one of the premier brain health centers in the world. I never thought we’d see five Lou Ruvo centers.”

To celebrate the center’s first 10 years, Sabbagh outlined 10 milestones that he says have been important to its success.

The list includes the introduction of a new type of imaging to observe the metabolic process in the brain, the securing of an $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and the launch of a research program that has led to more than 70 clinical trials in over 2,500 patients.

Along with Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s, the center includes various forms of dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease among its core focus areas.

“One of the largest footprints for research in the entire Cleveland Clinic comes from right here,” Sabbagh said. “It’s exciting. These diseases are very common, and you can go to any doctor, but people are getting on planes and flying here to see us. We’re drawing from 43 states and seven countries. When you have a scary disease, you want to see people who do the top work.”

Cutting-edge care is a point of pride for the center. From music and art therapies to yoga and meditation, it incorporates many methodologies into its processes.

And when it comes to the future, Sabbagh is excited. He says a number of “newsworthy” studies will be released in the coming months. He also hinted at a possible expansion of the center’s Downtown footprint.

“We’re a major part of the Downtown economy,” Sabbagh said. “I know because the city planners and the mayor keep asking me when we’re going to build the next building. We’re going to keep doing what we do because families are in crisis. They need help now, not in a few weeks.”

One of the next big triumphs in the field, Sabbagh said, will likely be the ability to check for Alzheimer’s by using a blood test. He suspects that’s about three years away.

“In 10 years, we’ve seen remarkable improvements in the field, but there’s still no silver bullet today,” Ruvo said. “There’s so much energy out there and so much empathy, I believe that each year, we’ll see more ways to delay the onset of these diseases. Hopefully, we’ll have a cure one day.”


This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.