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USU Neuropathologist Earns Top Neuropathology Award, Recognized for Career-Long Scientific Achievements

Dr. Dan Perl and a colleague look at a research board.

By Sarah Marshall

Dr. Dan Perl, a renowned expert in neuropathology and professor of Pathology at USU, was recently recognized for his career-long scientific achievements and significant contributions to the field of neuropathology, earning the Award for Meritorious Contributions to Neuropathology from the American Association of Neuropathologists (AANP) -- the highest recognition of professional achievement that the association bestows. The award was presented to Perl on June 11 at the AANP’s annual meeting.

To receive the AANP award, one’s influence in neuropathology must be felt beyond colleagues, students, and patients, and one must be recognized at the national and international levels.  For decades, Perl has been highly regarded for his work on understanding various aspects of neuropathology of age-related neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. 

Dr. Dan Perl accepting an award.
Dr. Dan Perl receives the Award for Meritorious Contributions
to Neuropathology on June 11 from the American Association
of Neuropathologists (AANP) -- the highest recognition of
professional achievement that the association bestows. The
award was presented during the association's meeting by
Dr. Ross Reichard, AANP president. (Courtesy photo)
Perl said he was “honored to be placed among the pantheon of former recipients of this award, all of whom I consider to be giants in our field.”  

A native New Yorker, Perl graduated from Columbia College, then earned his medical degree from the State University of New York, Downstate. While in medical school, he conducted research and started his career by presenting his findings at an AANP annual meeting, the day after his graduation. He went on to train at Yale in pathology and neuropathology, before joining the U.S. Public Health Service as a pathologist at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta. There, he was assigned a number of projects, producing the first of his many seminal publications. While there, he became an expert on the pathology of anthrax, an experience that would later become invaluable in dealing with the national outbreak of the disease in 2001.

Perl then took his first academic job at Brown University and, after four years, was recruited to the University of Vermont College of Medicine. Neuropathology was virtually non-existent on their campus at the time, but Perl went on to establish an accredited neuropathology training and NIH-funded research program at Vermont. While there, he developed an interest in age-related neurodegenerative disorders and started publishing in this area.  His work was recognized by the NIH’s National Institute of Aging (NIA) and he was named as a consultant to their research grant program.  And as the Alzheimer’s Disease Centers program was first being rolled out by the NIA, Perl worked behind the scenes, lobbying for a strong neuropathology presence, along with brain banking capabilities, as a required component of these Alzheimer Centers. This concept was then adopted and continues to this day, some 35 years later. Although not widely known, this represents an important and lasting contribution by Perl to the field of Alzheimer’s disease research.   

After a decade at Vermont, in 1986, Perl returned to New York and joined the faculty at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine as the director of its Neuropathology Division.  Once again, upon his arrival at Mount Sinai, he found that neuropathology was largely non-existent. And once again, Perl hired new staff and greatly expanded its research and training programs in this field. 

Throughout his career, Perl also maintained an interest in studying the potential role of environmental factors in neurodegenerative disorders, beginning with some of his pioneering work in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This work led him to engage in studies of a unique neurodegenerative disease -- ALS/parkinsonism-dementia complex of Guam, an endemic disorder among the island’s natives. In order to study the disease, Perl overcame a rather daunting logistical challenge, managing to collect, characterize, and bank more than 350 brain specimens from deceased Guam natives, despite living on a remote island 8,000 miles from his lab in New York. 

Vague images of scarring in the brains exposed to blast injury compared to those of regular head injury.
Dr. Perl published a study in 2016 in Lancet Neurology that found a unique pattern of scarring in the brains of deceased service members exposed to blast
injury, different from those exposed to other types of head injury. (Courtesy photo)

With his interest in environmental factors in neurodegeneration, he became drawn to investigate another unique degenerative brain disease -- chronic traumatic encephalopathy, more commonly known as CTE.  He came to realize that repeated impact injuries to the brain could trigger the development of this disease, and emerged as an expert on this disease and its pathology. After more than 20 years at Mount Sinai, he was recruited by USU in 2010 and asked to set up a new research program examining the effects of traumatic brain injury (TBI) on military personnel. Thus, he embarked on yet another remarkable chapter in his career. To develop a presence of neuropathology on the USU campus, he established a state-of-the-art neuropathology laboratory and brain tissue repository dedicated to research on the acute and long-term effects of TBI and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among military personnel. 

Perl continues to lead cutting-edge research as the director of USU’s Brain Tissue Repository, which is the only brain bank facility in the world exclusively dedicated to collecting, assessing, analyzing, and storing donated brains from individuals who have served in the military. These efforts have led to major advancements in understanding military-related TBI -- for instance, his discovery of a unique pattern of scarring in the brains of deceased service members exposed to blast injury, differing from those exposed to other types of head injury (i.e. car accidents, and sports-related concussions).  These findings were published in Lancet, Neurology in 2016.

Among many other significant achievements throughout his career, he has written more than 350 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters -- a significant number of which are very highly cited. For 32 consecutive years, Dr. Perl was funded as a principal investigator by the NIH.  He has also been recognized by a number of prestigious professional societies, as well as his alma mater, with their highest awards, and has given numerous keynote addresses and lectures all over the world.  

Perl’s career has been remarkable not only in length, but also in richness, explained leaders at the AANP meeting upon presenting him recently with their association’s award. “He is without question a most deserved recipient of this Meritorious Achievement Award.”