How Chattanooga Motorcar Festival benefits brain research

Staff file photo / Dr. Thomas Devlin, right, who is in the vanguard of neuroscience research, says the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival next month is a crucial ally in the advancement of brain science.
Staff file photo / Dr. Thomas Devlin, right, who is in the vanguard of neuroscience research, says the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival next month is a crucial ally in the advancement of brain science.

Thomas Devlin is an unabashed car guy.

The Chattanooga physician and researcher is an avid fan of Formula 1 racing and recalls fondly some of the fun automobiles he has owned. (Anyone remember the single-wiper-blade Volkswagen Scirocco? What about the Fiat Spider 128 convertible? He owned both.)

"I'm a huge car fan," Devlin said in an interview. "My mother was born in Italy, and growing up I was an incredible Italian motorcar race fanatic."

But Devlin's real claim to fame is his knowledge of the mechanics of the human nervous system and brain -- a field called neuroscience. From cutting-edge stroke care to advances in Alzheimer's research, Devlin is an advocate for medical causes.

He has been in the vanguard of stroke research and care, first at Erlanger hospital and now at CHI Memorial hospital, where he is medical director of the Stroke and Neuroscience Center.

Devlin's twin interests, cars and science, will put him at the nexus on Oct. 14-16 of the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival, which exalts vintage automobiles and provides financial support for neuroscience research through the CHI Memorial hospital and the Neuroscience Innovation Foundation.

(READ MORE: Motorcar Festival may become Chattanooga's claim to fame)

Previous festivals have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars split between CHI Memorial's neuroscience center and the foundation, where Devlin is president and medical director.

Devlin says car racing and neuroscience research have three things in common: They require attention to time, technology and teamwork. Time is of particular significance because strokes and Alzheimer's disease are ticking time bombs for people in our region, he says.

Devlin says Tennessee is squarely in the "stroke belt." Chattanooga has become a mecca for stroke care, which requires a quick response to limit brain damage.

"There is not a more time-sensitive condition in all of medicine," Devlin said. "We lose 1.9 million brain cells every minute anyone has a blood clot in their head."

(READ MORE: Mecum auction becomes the beating heart of the Chattanooga Motorcar Festival)

Devlin said emergency teams trained in stroke care must work with speed and precision, like a Formula 1 pit crew. That's where teamwork comes in.

Because CHI Memorial is part of CommonSpirit Health, the nation's second largest health care chain (after HCA Healthcare) with 142 hospitals, stroke research at CHI Memorial's neuroscience center is a force multiplier, Devlin says.

"You can think of us a combination of 'Shark Tank' and QVC," Devlin says.

Meanwhile the Neuroscience Innovation Foundation, a Chattanooga-based nonprofit organization that also benefits from Motorcar Festival donations, acts as a clearinghouse for research funds.

"They pick out what they think are the most important research topics and labs, and funnel money to high-impact programs," Devlin said.

The foundation is especially active in supporting research into finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease, which has been one of the most elusive goals in science.

(READ MORE: Former Indy rookie of the year selected as grand marshal of Chattanooga Motorcar Festival)

In Tennessee alone, there are 120,000 people with Alzheimer's, a number that promises to grow as the large baby boomer generation continues to age, Devlin says.

The three-day Chattanooga Motorcar Festival, which takes over a portion of downtown Chattanooga, includes a Concourse d'Elegance (car show), the Pace Grand Prix at the Bend vintage car races and a Mecum vintage auto auction.

Life Stories is published on Mondays. To suggest a human interest story, contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.