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The brain whisperer: Stanford neurologist talks about his work, shares tips with aspiring doctors

The brain whisperer: Stanford neurologist talks about his work, shares tips with aspiring doctors

Parvizi at MS 101 - smallJosef Parvizi, MD, PhD, knows firsthand how art can influence medicine. While at a concert featuring music created by digitizing space sounds, he was inspired: “Why can’t we make music by digitzing brain waves?”

Parvizi, a neurologist who specializes in epilepsy, told local high-school students attending Stanford’s Med School 101 recently that the beauty of being a physician-researcher at Stanford is that you’re “surrounded by brilliant people in all areas.” So he took his literal brainstorm to Chris Chafe, PhD, in Stanford’s music department, and the result is a newly patented “brain stethoscope” that can translate brainwaves into music. Parvizi demonstrated the difference between normal brainwave music and the music produced by a brain experiencing a seizure in this YouTube video about the research.

In addition to the brain stethoscope, Parvizi has developed a procedure utilizing electrodes to detect the exact area of the brain that is causing the seizure, and then working with brain surgeons to operate on the affected area. At last week’s event he told the story of a patient who for 20 years had seizures that caused her leg to flail out to the side, greatly limiting her ability to do the things we take for granted every day, like driving or taking a shower. Showing a picture of the happy patient in her car holding up her driver’s license, Parvizi said, “This patient has been seizure-free for six years, driving and enjoying life like never before.”

Parvizi described being a physician-researcher this way: “Like riding two horses standing up with one foot on each horse, you have to keep your balance and it takes some skill.” But, he says, being a physician-researcher allows you to help thousands of patients with your research, and one patient at a time with the application of that research.

He advised the students to “do work you are excited about,” and in looking for a mentor, “be persistent, not pushy.” Parvizi told the story of how as a medical student he contacted the pioneering cognitive neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD, after reading his ground-breaking book, Descartes’ Error. “This was before the Internet, so I wrote to him and sent him faxes. I finally called him and told him I would be coming to the States and would like to meet with him. He told me he would give me 15 minutes. I told him, ‘I am coming all the way from Norway,’ and he said, ‘I will give you 15 minutes.’” That meeting set the course for Parvizi’s career, a career he clearly relishes.

“It took me 22 years of school and training, and that sounds like a lot, but it went by fast because everything is so interesting and exciting,” Parvizi told the group. Snapping his fingers and smiling, he said, “It went by just like that.”

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities, and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. Parvizi and Chafe will be demonstrating their brain stethoscope on April 29 from 5:30-7 PM at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, as part of  the program’s Recombinations series.

Previously: At Med School 101, teens learn that it’s “so cool to be a doctor”, How epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brainImplanting electrodes to treat epilepsy, better understand the brain and Ask Stanford Med: Neurologist answers your questions on drug-resistant epilepsy
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

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