The edge of scientific breakthrough is a very exciting place to be. Dr. Vernon B. Williams, director of the renowned Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute’s Center for Sports Neurology & Pain Management in the Howard Hughes Center, is leading that charge in the field of sports neurology.
Williams specializes in neuroplasticity, which is how nerve cells in the brain compensate for injury or disease and adjust activities to new situations, and neuromodulation, a therapy that can alter nerve activity by targeting stimuli to specific neurological sites in the body.
“I think we’re really on the precipice of an exciting new subspecialty,” Williams believes. “We’re learning so much more about how our brains function. We’re learning that athletes can train their brains to have more focus and better vision, have better balance and improve their performance. And this is applicable to the general public as well, whether you’re a student, a weekend warrior or an entrepreneur who wants to improve your concentration and function.”
As team neurologist for the NFC champion Los Angeles Rams, Williams assists the team’s medical staff with evaluating players who have sustained concussions on the field.
In addition to scientific research, performing surgeries and helping patients with pain management, Williams participates in a Westchester-based program called Team HEAL (Helping Enrich Athletes Lives), co-founded by Kerlan-Jobe colleague Dr. Clarence Shields Jr. The nonprofit effort provides medical evaluations and certified athletic trainers for athletes on Los Angeles Unified School District sports teams, including the Westchester Comets.
Introducing young people to the intricacies of medicine — especially sports neurology — is a special calling for Williams, because in many ways it’s very personal. As a high school football player in Detroit, Williams was offered an afterschool internship at Henry Ford Hospital and assigned to the neurology department, which was overseeing a research study involving stroke patients.
“The chairman of the lab came by and asked me if I wanted to see how stroke patients were rehabilitating. I was always interested in how the brain worked, how we use it, and how we think. That got me interested in becoming a doctor,” he says.
Williams went on to study at the University of Michigan Medical School and returned to Henry Ford for an internship before completing his residency at the University of Maryland Medical Center and a fellowship at Johns Hopkins.
A fan of classic jazz who enjoys watching sports and taking his wife on dates to cultural institutions and various Westside restaurants, Williams is serious about making time to work with young people. It brings him full-circle back to his days as a young athlete.
“I see myself in a lot of the students,” he reflects. “Giving them this kind of exposure to medicine early on, especially to this newly emerging field, is one of the best parts of my job.”
— Gary Walker
Photo by Courtnay Robbins