Debby Tsuang, MD

By: Celine Robins

Dr. Debby Tsuang

Award for Achievement

Debby Tsuang (83BS, 88MD, 92MS, 92R–psychiatry) has made critical contributions to the understanding of dementia and related disorders through her research on their genetic, clinical, and neuropathological underpinnings. Tsuang’s cutting-edge studies of dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) have informed its clinical classification and treatment by highlighting the role that behavioral disorders play in DLB. She is committed to compassionate clinical care for socioeconomically vulnerable populations. Her passion for helping aging veterans has influenced much of her research, and she has expanded telehealth options at the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC) of the VA Puget Sound Health Care System to increase rural veterans’ access to care. She has also achieved the distinction of being both the first woman and the first non‐white person to serve as director of the VA Puget Sound GRECC.

Tsuang proudly follows in her father’s footsteps (Ming Tsuang, MD, PhD, ScD, UI Department of Psychiatry 1972–1982) as an academic researcher in psychiatry. In high school, she worked as a research assistant in the department, which ignited her interest in mental health care and research.  

“Furthermore, I really enjoyed the time that I spent in my rotation talking with patients instead of sticking needles in so many of their body parts,” she says.  

Her most impactful contributions to academic psychiatry have been made through her research of the clinical characteristics and genetic factors associated with DLB. This research has shown that DLB lies on a spectrum that also includes Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, both of which were once thought to be distinct and unrelated disorders.  

“Our ability to limit antipsychotic use in those who will suffer adverse consequences from prescription of these medications has had a significant impact,” she says.

She credits her outstanding medical, clinical, and research training at the Carver College of Medicine for establishing a solid foundation for her work. She advises students today to use their time in medical school to build skills and relationships, and to consider what they would like their long-term impact to be. 

“The persistence and strategies that you develop during medical school will serve you well during the rest of your medical career,” she says.  

Tsuang will be stepping down from her directorship this fall to focus on her research. Her goal is to develop effective referral pathways for older adults with cognitive impairment. “Over 50% of individuals with dementia are not diagnosed in primary care, and often referrals are not explored until it’s too late,” she explains. “I would like to implement strategies for primary care providers to diagnose cognitive impairment earlier in the course of illness. This aligns with most elders' desire to age at home.”   

She also looks forward to the possibility of more individualized treatment options for mental illness as technology develops in the field. “We currently provide pharmacological treatment on a trial-by-trial basis,” she says. “I hope that we can be more intentional in the future on the basis of biological or genetic markers."