Volume 29 - Number 9 - Thursday, January 30, 1997

New chair created to boost schizophrenia research

by Hélèna Katz

Graham Boeckh was 22 when he died of complications arising from schizophrenia. More than 10 years later his memory will live on through McGill's newly created Graham Boeckh Chair of Schizophrenia Studies. A $1.5 million donation from the Graham Boeckh Foundation led to the creation of one of North America's first chairs in schizophrenia research.

"We were always focused on doing something for schizophrenia because of Graham's illness and we wanted to do something to honour him because he's not here to speak for himself," explains father Tony Boeckh.

He and second wife Raymonde set up the foundation about six years ago and named it for Tony's eldest son. Graham's brothers Ian and Robert are trustees, and their mother Janet has fully supported the project. After making donations to organizations including Sun Youth, the Salvation Army and Youth Horizons, they decided to establish a chair at McGill to further research into schizophrenia.

The decision to fund research into the causes and treatment of schizophrenia rather than services like shelters for the homeless didn't come easily, Boeckh admits.
Left to right: Ian, Raymonde and Tony Boeckh

"It was a difficult choice but we decided to go with basic research because Graham's death was from a chemical interaction with the drugs he was taking."

Graham Boeckh was an excellent student and athlete when he became withdrawn at about age 17, says his father. But it wasn't until his first year studying at Queen's that Graham's symptoms became much more devastating and finally forced him to quit halfway through his second year.

Schizophrenia is a biologically based disease whose symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, reduced mental and emotional activity and acute depression. It affects about one per cent of the population but its sufferers are hospitalized more often than people with other types of mental illness.

"In terms of the illness, there's nothing you can do. Schizophrenia follows its course and there's only medication to deal with the symptoms," Boeckh says.

After looking around, they chose to establish the chair at McGill because "it was clear to us that McGill has world-class medical facilities, the top researchers and a commitment to excellence. Also there's a collaboration within Montreal with various hospitals and other universities with much reach." These include the Douglas Hospital's schizophrenia research unit and the Montreal Neurological Institute.

Dr. Joel Paris, acting chair of the Department of Psychiatry, says the Boeckh family's donation gives the field a much-needed boost.

"When someone dies of kidney disease, people run out and donate money to kidney research," he says. But "money doesn't tend to go to psychiatry because of the stigma of mental illness."

He hopes to have a world-renowned scientist filling the chair by September. That person could have expertise in genetics, neurobiology or brain development.

Genetic research shows that schizophrenia is based on a genetic predisposition for the disease. "There's no one gene for schizophrenia--many genes are involved," Paris explains. Neurobiology tries to determine how a schizophrenic brain differs from a normal one. A brain development specialist could pursue one of the major theories in the field that suggests schizophrenia may be due to the way the brain develops at the embryonic stage.

"Now McGill will be in the race to find a breakthrough," Boeckh says. But he knows it will be expensive. "The amount of money (being donated) is big for anyone, but trivial for what will be needed to get a breakthrough."

He hopes the establishment of the chair will lead to more funding from other sources such as government grants. Considering the number of people affected by mental illness, the amount of research dollars allocated to it lags behind other diseases, he says.

Paris agrees. "Research dollars go towards diseases which have a higher public profile," he says. He's quick to applaud the Boeckhs' efforts. "The family has been very courageous in stepping forward. They're private people exposing themselves to public scrutiny. We hope this will be the first of several donations."

For the sake of other families struggling with schizophrenia, Tony Boeckh does too.

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