The 63-year-old UCSF neurologist is considered one of the country's top clinical specialists for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. ALS is also the reason Olney is in a hurry to finish his paper: He was diagnosed with ALS in 2004, and after a long period of relative stability, the disease appears to be rapidly winning out over the doctor.
Olney has almost no muscle function left.
"He's at the end stages now, certainly," said Dr. Catherine Lomen-Hoerth, once Olney's medical trainee, now his doctor. "I'm hopeful he may have at least a few months."
Olney hopes the disease he is studying will spare him at least long enough to finish his research on it. His son, Nicholas, 33, is assisting with the final write-up.
Their goal is to show how certain clinical readings of the muscles and nerves, recorded over a three-month span in the early stages of ALS, might help identify which patients will lose all muscle control quickly and which might have years before they succumb. That kind of information would be invaluable for patients and their families. It also could point researchers toward new genetic clues and treatment strategies for at least some of the many ALS subtypes.
Results are based on only 26 cases. The value of the findings will take time to determine. The study author will have to leave the follow-up to others.
Breathing problems sent Olney to the UCSF emergency room in March, followed by a few days in the intensive care unit. He has lost virtually all muscle control. He communicates by moving his pupils. Sweeping his gaze over a computer tablet, he selects letters and key words one by one, blinking to record each choice.
The computer reads out his sentences in his own voice, which he recorded for this purpose, back when he was still able to speak. As one of the country's top ALS specialists, Olney knew, right from the start, what he was in for.