5 February 2007. As shocked and heartbroken Alzheimer disease researchers are alerting each other privately, it is with deep sadness that we inform the worldwide AD community of Leon J. Thal’s tragic accident. Thal, a beloved leader of clinical Alzheimer disease research, died Saturday night when the small plane he flew crashed near Borrego Springs, California. He was 62. According to today’s San Diego Tribune, Thal’s plane had taken off from a San Diego airfield at 6:15 p.m. and sent out a distress signal around 10 p.m. Sherriff’s deputies reached the crash site by helicopter later that night and found Thal’s body. Thal was an experienced pilot; he had flown alone. The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an investigation.
Image credit: Jacqueline Mervaillie
Thal was a larger-than-life figure in AD research, and his tragic death is a devastating loss at many levels. Locally, Thal headed not only the Shiley-Marcos Alzheimer Disease Research Center, but also chaired the Department of Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego. He was known as a deft manager and recruited many noted neuroscientists to the area. At the state level, Thal was a member of the oversight committee of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which was created after California voters approved the state’s stem cell ballot initiative in 2004.
For clinical AD research, Thal’s importance is hard to overstate. He was the principal investigator of the Alzheimer Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS), a consortium of about 70 academic medical centers in the U.S. and Canada. In this role, he led the clinical evaluation of many candidate drugs. He was an authority on the design of clinical trials and worked tirelessly toward improving instruments to measure disease progression and drug effects. Thal thought ahead toward a future of AD prevention. He was active in numerous initiatives throughout the country and abroad, most recently the establishment of Keep Memory Alive, the foundation for the Lou Ruvo Brain Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada.
At research conferences, Leon Thal cut a distinctive figure. Tall and lanky, and sporting a signature mustache, he will be remembered fondly for his kindness and his ready laugh in addition to his accomplishments as a physician-scientist and administrator. To this reporter, Thal was a trusted advisor and responsive source. Thal leaves behind his wife, Donna, a neuropsychologist. He will be deeply missed by many, with the only possible consolation being that he died doing what he loved best in his spare time, that is, flying his own plane.—Gabrielle Strobel.