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Faculty Spotlight: Burton Scott, MD, PhD

Thursday, December 15, 2016

For Burton Scott, MD, PhD, the call to neurology came from family--both his grandfather, who was a general practitioner in a small Texas town, and his father, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when Scott was in medical school. In this week’s faculty spotlight, Scott talks about caring for patients with Parkinson's and Huntington's disease, how treatment for movement disorders has improved over the past three decades, and how dissecting frog retinas convinced him not to become a surgeon.

What are your responsibilities within the Department? What does a typical day for you look like?
I manage patients with movement disorders, mostly Parkinson's  disease and related conditions. I spend most of my time seeing movement disorders patients at Morreene road clinic or the Durham VAMC, and participating in clinical trials.

How did you decide to become a neurologist? How did you decide to specialize in movement disorders?
My maternal grandfather, Waldo Burton Laster, for whom I am named, was a general practitioner in a small town in Texas -- Mineral Wells, the home of "crazy water," a cure-all beverage in the 1930s. I wanted to do what my grandfather did. About the time I was trying to get into medical school, my father developed Parkinson's disease, which lead to my own career in taking care of folks like my dad.  

You often treat patients with Huntington's disease. What can you, as a physician, offer patients when they have such a difficult, incurable disease? How do you personally cope with the stress of working so closely with patients with this disease?
Huntington's disease (HD) is an incurable, inherited neurodegenerative disease that erodes one’s ability to function and work,  depleting family resources. Individuals in HD families grow up witnessing the decline of affected family members, and are constantly looking for symptoms of HD in themselves. However, there is new hope for effective treatments for HD, thanks to on-going basic and clinical research.

It is fulfilling to help take care of these people and their families, and to be able to offer them the hope of clinical trials. Plus, the group of colleagues that I get to work with in movement disorders and HD clinic are first rate!

How has treatment for movement disorders changed since you began your practice? What’s the biggest improvement you’ve seen since then?

Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) has improved quality of life for Parkinson's disease patients. Advances in the genetics of neurologic illness are leading to potentially innovative new treatments, such as the possibility of turning off the causative gene in Huntington's disease.

You earned your PhD from Duke in 1984. What field did you study for this degree, and how does this knowledge influence your practice?
I earned a PhD in anatomy studying bullfrog rhodopsin [ed: a pigment found in the retina] in the lab of Professor Joe Corless, who is an emeritus faculty member at Duke. Dissecting hundreds of frog retinas during my graduate school years convinced me that being a surgeon was not in my future!

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
Our faith is important to my wife Mari Bouvier and I. I enjoy singing in our little church choir of three or four people at Peace Church, an Evangelical Presbyterian Church in North Durham. And I'm a die-hard Blue Devils fan.

Scott Twitch
Above, Scott talks with Kristen Powers during a recent screening of the documentary Twitch, which follows Powers' decision to undergo testing for Huntington's disease.

Scott poses with a butterfly in front of his 1997 Nissan King Cab pickup truck.