It began with a sweatshirt. In December 2007, when Tony- and Emmy-Award-winning actor David Hyde Pierce appeared on the Today show to promoteCurtains, the Broadway comedy in which he was then appearing, an alert viewer in New Haven noticed that the illustrious Yale College alumnus wore a sweatshirt bearing the name of An Important Medical School That Is Not Yale.

A package was soon delivered to Hyde Pierce’s dressing room at the Al Hirschfeld Theater with a tongue-in-cheek note from Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., that read, in part, “I have been remiss in not providing you with the relevant clothing associated with your alma mater . . . and am enclosing a Yale School of Medicine sweatshirt, hat, and scarf.” The hat, a baseball cap, was a hit: Hyde Pierce, best-known for his portrayal of the cultured, persnickety Niles Crane, M.D., Ph.D., in the long-running CBS sitcomFrasier, says he wears the cap “religiously.” (The fictional Crane earned his undergraduate, M.D., and Ph.D. degrees at Yale.)

But Alpern’s letter also had a serious purpose. During his career, Hyde Pierce has lent his voice to animated characters as various as The Simpsons’ Cecil Terwilliger and Slim the stick-insect in A Bug’s Life. But for 15 years, he has also been one of the most visible and articulate spokesman for The Alzheimer’s Association, raising awareness of the urgent need for better diagnostic tools and effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Because Alpern has made the expansion of research on neurodegenerative diseases a touchstone of his tenure as dean, he invited Hyde Pierce to visit the School of Medicine to learn about the school’s diverse research efforts in AD.

“Statistically, this is a disease that’s going to affect everybody in one way or another,” Hyde Pierce says, and this trend has been borne out in his own life. The disease killed his beloved grandfather, and advancing dementia would likely have claimed his father but for a fatal bout with pneumonia. “When he died, he still knew us,” says the actor, a former national board member (now an honorary member) of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Hyde Pierce took Alpern up on his offer to visit New Haven, and met with scientists exploring AD on every front in the search for new treatments. “When you see these bristling intellects working on this thing, and how much has been done,” Hyde Pierce says, “it gives you hope.” He was “pleased and proud, having gone to Yale, to find out about the medical school’s vibrant neurodegenerative research community,” and this past March he joined Alpern and a group of School of Medicine scientists at the Yale Club of New York for a presentation of the School of Medicine’s Alzheimer’s disease research.

The session was moderated by John H. Krystal, M.D., the Robert McNeil Professor of Translational Research, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, and an authority on neuropsychiatric disease. To lead off the talks, Associate Professor of Pharmacology Ya Ha, Ph.D., whose team published the first-ever crystal structure of an  enzyme that acts inside cell membranes in 2007, discussed how his work relates to human gamma-secretase, the enzyme that creates the amyloid fragments involved in AD. Stephen M. Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., the Vincent Coates Professor of Neurology and co-director of the Yale Program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration, and Repair, then presented his surprising recent findings on how the amyloid-beta (A-β) protein that comprises the “plaques” found in AD patients’ brains may begin the destructive cascade that eventually erases memories (see related story). Finally, Christopher H. van Dyck, M.D., professor of psychiatry and neurobiology and director of Yale’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Unit, reported on progress using imaging techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) to measure brain levels of A-β, which may soon achieve the elusive goal of early AD diagnosis, providing doctors with enough time for treatments to make a difference.

In his own remarks, Hyde Pierce navigated “the twin horns of the Alzheimer’s dilemma” that he says frame most of his talks on the subject. It is essential, he says, to “keep hope alive and let people know there’s progress,” but also to drive home the urgency of the current situation. “We have no treatments, and we need to be candid about this disease.”

The prolific Hyde Pierce has received many accolades since he graduated from Yale College in 1981, including a Tony Award in 2007 for his work in Curtains, and four Emmys for Frasier. But earlier this year he brought home a different sort of prize, one that is particularly appropriate for a man who has made his name as both actor and advocate: the Tony Awards’ 2010 Isabelle Stevenson Award, which honors his “substantial contribution” to the Alzheimer’s Association.