Michael Aldrich

Michael S. Aldrich, professor of neurology and founder of the U-M Sleep Disorder Laboratory, died July 18 at his home in Ann Arbor after a long fight against osteosarcoma. He was 51.

Known internationally for his work on narcolepsy, Aldrich was considered a pioneer neurologist in the relatively young field of sleep medicine. He established the Sleep Disorders section in the Department of Neurology in 1985, when sleep disorders were mainly the province of psychiatrists. During the following 15 years, he developed the center into a burgeoning clinical service, a home to forefront research on sleep and its relationship to neurological disorders and a training ground for numerous young sleep specialists.

Until recently, says Sid Gilman, the William J. Herdman Professor of Neurology and chair of the Department of Neurology, “people had taken for granted that they don’t sleep well. It took a person like Mike Aldrich to start systematically studying normal sleep and abnormal sleep, and connecting sleep problems to neurological disorders. He also was an inspired teacher and a caring physician with devoted patients and devoted trainees. People loved him.”

Aldrich’s interest in sleep disorders began in high school in Chicago, when he worked as a research assistant in the lab of leading sleep deprivation researcher Al Rechtschaffen at the University of Chicago. He continued this work between semesters at Swarthmore College, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1970. While attending medical school at the University of Virginia, he gained experience in the psychiatric aspects of sleep disorders during a rotation with Ian Oswald in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received his M.D. in 1980.

Arriving at the U-M in 1981 for his internship and neurology residency, Aldrich pursued subspecialty training in electroencephalography and clinical neurophysiology, receiving additional guidance at Stanford with William Dement and Christian Guilleminault, founders of the field of sleep medicine; and at Henry Ford Hospital with Tom Roth.

Aldrich founded the U-M’s Sleep Laboratory in 1985; this April, it was named after him. His work as a neurologist ranged from stroke to cortical blindness and degenerative disease, but his focus quickly became narcolepsy, for which he built an international reputation.

His narcolepsy research explored both the basic underpinnings of the disorder in the neurotransmitters of the brain and its clinical manifestations. Aldrich is credited with codifying the signs of narcolepsy and establishing the most effective diagnostic methods, allowing physicians to distinguish it from other causes of excessive sleepiness.

In 1990, his seminal New England Journal of Medicine article on the topic provided an eye-opening primer for general physicians and specialists, giving them the means to detect cases of narcolepsy that might have otherwise gone undiagnosed. His recent book on the topic in the Oxford University Press’ Contemporary Neurology series is already considered a classic.

Other areas to which he has made important contributions include sleepiness and its assessment, obstructive sleep apnea, the interaction of sleep and epilepsy, and the effects of alcohol on sleep. He has published 64 peer-reviewed articles, 4 books, and numerous chapters, abstracts and presentations.

Using a database of more than 12,000 sleep studies from patients with a variety of sleeping disorders, Aldrich and his colleagues discovered previously undetected links from neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy to sleep disorders such as sleep apnea. He and others at the U-M have since shown that sleep disturbances are actually part of the disease process for many neurological conditions.

Teaching also was a major part of Aldrich’s career. Soon after coming to the U-M, he founded a residency and fellowship in sleep medicine in the Department of Neurology, programs that have trained numerous young physicians. In 1999, after several years of work, Aldrich published a comprehensive text for students and professionals, Sleep Medicine, now in its second printing.

“He was a wonderful mentor for me and other junior faculty,” says Ronald Chervin, interim director of the Michael S. Aldrich Sleep Disorders Laboratory and assistant professor of neurology, “He was extremely selfless with his time and always willing to help in any way to teach and help further our careers. He also had the most loyal patients of any physician I know.”

Aldrich served as a board member and then president of the American Board of Sleep Medicine. He was a member of several National Institutes of Health study sections and on six editorial boards for academic publications. He has twice been named one of the Best Doctors in America. In 1998, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine accorded him its highest honor, the prestigious William C. Dement Academic Achievement Award.

Last month, at a plenary session of the Association of Professional Sleep Societies, a national meeting for nearly 4,000 sleep clinicians and researchers, he was cited for critical contributions to sleep medicine and for his profound influence on medical education in sleep disorders.

Aldrich is survived by his wife, Leslie Aldrich, a clinical assistant professor of gastroenterology at the Health System; his three children, Brian, Matthew and Jennifer; his parents, Dr. C. Knight and Julie Aldrich of Charlottesville, Va.; brother Robert Aldrich and his wife Amy of Washington, D.C.; brother Dr. Thomas Aldrich and wife Susan of Pelham, N.Y.; and sister Carol Barkin and husband Coleman of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

A memorial service was held July 20. Memorial donations may be made to the Michael S. Aldrich Sleep Medicine Fund in Neurology, Department of Neurology, 0316.

Submitted by Health System Public Relations


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