The gift of $1.25 million creates the first endowed chair in the department. K.C. Brennan, MD, has been named as the first recipient.
University of Utah Health announced a gift of $1.25 million to create the Fred W. and Christine A. Fairclough Endowed Chair in the Department of Neurology. Kevin C. (KC) Brennan, MD, has been named as the first recipient. Dr. Brennan is a clinician scientist who specializes in the treatment of headache disorders, in particular migraine and post-traumatic headaches.
“Nearly every person in the world has experienced a headache at some point, yet our understanding of the basic mechanisms that cause the condition is limited,” said A. Lorris Betz, MD, PhD, CEO of University of Utah Health and senior vice president for health sciences. “And for many, headaches are more than an inconvenience—they are a debilitating condition. Dr. Brennan is acknowledged as a leading researcher in this relatively new field. Thanks to the immense generosity of Fred and Christine Fairclough, he will be able to pursue new paths of research that could eventually bring relief to millions around the globe. We are deeply grateful to the Fairclough family for this gift.”
“The neurology research being conducted at University of Utah Health is remarkable,” said Fred Fairclough. “Dr. Brennan is [doing] pioneering work into a relatively new, yet vital field. We know just how devastating headaches can be.”
Indeed, the Faircloughs’ interest in headache research stems from personal experience. In 2008, Fred and Christine’s son, Jake, was snowboarding alone on the slopes of Snowbird when he suffered an accident that resulted in a concussion. After initially recovering, he began to experience a persistent headache that he thought would eventually pass.
It never did.
Instead, the headache built in intensity and persisted through attempts to medicate it. “My pain tolerance became different,” Jake said. “On a scale of one to 10, most people who experience a headache at three or four might call it a migraine. That’s more like my normal day-to-day, and I frequently experience spikes of five to six. When it gets to seven and eight, I can’t even get out of bed.”
Jake and his parents sought treatment at a number of clinics, but as years passed, the headaches remained. “One clinician told us, ‘We may never fully understand what caused this. And it will likely never go away,’” Fred recalled.
Then in 2016, the Faircloughs, who have a long association with University of Utah, became aware of Brennan’s work specializing in post-traumatic headache.
“Post-traumatic headache is more than 'just a headache' - it is a chronic disorder of brain circuits,” said Brennan. “Imagine that a volume knob has been turned up on all your senses. Just a few hours would be overwhelming. But for some like Jake, this is a constant state of being. What we’re dealing with is a disruption of gain, or volume control, in the whole nervous system. We urgently need to understand this disorder so we can treat it better.”
In the United States, 37 million people experience migraine-level headaches and 6.5 million are afflicted with persistent migraines. These individuals are afflicted with a kind of chronic sensory nightmare occupying every waking minute, which can in turn affect a person’s ability to function and interact. That, Brennan explains, is what Jake was experiencing.
“Frankly, we had resigned ourselves that he might always have these headaches,” said Christine Fairclough. “We weren’t sure if Dr. Brennan could help us, but his research was so compelling and clearly offered promise to help others in the future. We felt like we needed to be a part of it.”
As it happened, Brennan and colleagues were able to help.
“One of the strongest aspects of University of Utah Health is our team approach,” said Stefan M. Pulst, MD, chair of the department of neurology. “Dr. Brennan, one of the leading researchers in the nation in this field, works in a nimble team with other clinical scientists to develop a treatment plan that encompasses all aspects of a person's life. This holistic approach makes for better research and better care for our patients.”
Brennan’s team examined the traditional treatments that had been tried with Jake to limited success. “Then we applied both old and new methodology, in a strategy based on insights from our research,” Brennan said.
The results were almost immediate. While the headaches did not go away, Jake reported that the pain became noticeably more manageable. “This has been one of the best years I’ve had in nearly a decade since the accident,” Jake said. “Dr. Brennan and his colleagues have really given me some hope.”
Brennan cautions that the treatments aren’t yet a cure, and in fact discourages thinking about chronic headaches in terms of instant cures. “We are dealing with longstanding activity patterns in the nervous system that are particular to an individual. Changing these takes time and resilience. Our goal is to turn that volume level down, to move headaches from a daily ordeal to an occasional inconvenience, so Jake can live a full life with his characteristic energy,” Brennan said. “There will be good and bad days. We’re committed to helping Jake heal, and we’ll be here for the duration.”
As for the endowed chair, Brennan said that he intends to use the funds to directly support new research conducted by graduate students and postdocs. “I can’t think of a better way to honor this gift than to ensure it supports a new generation of research,” Brennan said.
“We all wish that our son didn’t have to experience these headaches,” said Christine. “Our goal is that this contribution will help bring about new insights and discoveries into how headaches are formed that will, in turn, lead to new treatments. We are grateful for the relief we gain today and hopeful that this research will help relieve the pain of many more in the future.”