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Mental Health, Podcasts, Stanford News

New frontiers for psychiatric illness

New frontiers for psychiatric illness

brain statueI started my recent conversation with Stanford psychiatrist and neuroscientist Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, with the March 24 crash of the Germanwings aircraft. The pilot, now known to have had a history of depression, was on an apparent suicide/homicide mission, killing 150 passengers when he crashed the plane in the French Alps. I wondered, could this tragedy in any way serve as a teachable moment to help de-stigmatize mental illness? Was it possible at all in the midst of a senseless horror to also have any constructive dialogue about mental illness?

I guess I already knew the answer, but Etkin confirmed it. He told me that when a horrendous event occurs like this, someone has to accept blame, and “that already colors the conversation you will have.” It’s not like when an admired public figure discloses a mental disorder and a conversation about mental illness can potentially enlighten the issue.  The sheer tragedy, Etkin said, overwhelms any attempt to educate or lessen the stigma about mental illness.

We went on to talk about the plasticity of the brain and its ability to recover, and a lot about the progress in brain research and why he believes we’re well into a new area of discovery that will reap benefits. And I asked him what Freud would think about this moment in time in psychiatry. Would the father of modern psychiatry see progress in the field if he were transported to today?

Freud, as a clinician, would be disappointed that “we’re not even close to cures now compared to 100 years ago when he lived,” Etkin responded. Freud’s early work, said Etkin,”was to actually try to understand the brain basis with the very, very rudimentary science at the time, of the things he saw clinically. I think that would make him happy – that now there’s a connecting of things grounded in the brain that there wasn’t a couple of decades ago. This is really a relatively new development with brain imaging.”

Etkin does offer great hope and believes the advances in the treatment of mental disorders that are well underway will be transformative in the future:

I think we are now at the point in psychiatry and in neuroscience relative to behavior and emotion where we finally have some of the tools we need to answer the questions that we want to answer and [are] no longer as limited by not having had those tools… Asking questions with the right tools will allow very, very big questions to be answered.

Previously: Study: Major psychiatric disorders share common deficits in brain’s executive-function networkHope for the globby thing inside our skulls, My descent into madness – a conversation with author Susannah CahalanBrain study offers “intriguing clues toward new therapies” for psychiatric disorders and Searching for better PTSD treatments
Related: Brain power: Psychiatry turns to neuroscience
Photograph of a Federico Carbajal Raya sculpture by Victor Vargas Villafuerte

Cancer, Podcasts, Stanford News

Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”

Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: "I can't go on. I will go on."

Kalanthi and childEditor’s note: Paul Kalanithi passed away on March 9, after this post was published.

Frankly, I didn’t quite know how to begin my conversation with Paul Kalanithi, MD. How do you talk to a 37–year-old man about his terminal illness and facing death? A conversation with someone so young who’s the father of a small child is supposed to be ebullient, not dark.

Kalanithi, a Stanford Medicine neurosurgeon and fellow with Stanford Neurosciences Institute, was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer in 2013. His illness is terminal. While he’s hopeful that a treatment may extend his life, there is no cure. He faces big questions and small ones. And he wonders: “How do I talk about myself – in the present, past or future tense? When someone says, ‘See you next year,’ will I?”

It all began with back pain, night sweats, weight loss and fever. His neurosurgical training prepared him for what he reviewed on his CT scan. Metastatic cancer. He responded well to his initial treatment plan, but a second round of chemotherapy last spring led to a number of complications and setbacks. Though he finished his residency he’s now taking time off to recover and regain his strength. He remains hopeful about a return to neurosurgery, yet he has to prepare for an end. He’s spoken with a palliative-care expert. He’s mulling the existential questions and trying to grapple with moving on while not giving up. He takes comfort in the words of the Irish novelist and playwright, Samuel Beckett: “I can’t go on. I can go on.” They’ve become sort of his mantra.

Still, he knows he faces the inevitable and whether it’s a year, two years or five, terminal is the diagnosis. He’s trying to find a way to leave a trail of bread crumbs to his life so his child will know she was loved deeply when his presence is all but a shadow.

I spoke with him last November for a 1:2:1 podcast while he was in the throes of writing a book proposal. It was hard for me at points in our conversation to keep it together as our talk pried open my own grief over my brother’s death to cancer at age 48.

Kalanithi also wrote a beautiful piece for Stanford Medicine magazine. It’s magical. It’s lyrical. It touches the heart. And it’s clear, no matter what his health status, no matter what the outcome, he will live on.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football, A neurosurgeon’s journey from doctor to cancer patient, Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and No one wants to talk about dying but we all need to
Photo by Gregg Segal

Medicine and Literature, Patient Care, Podcasts, Stanford News

Abraham Verghese: “A saintliness in so many of my patients”

Abraham Verghese: "A saintliness in so many of my patients"

Verghese lookingThere’s a quiet dignity that envelopes Abraham Verghese, MD. You can imagine other authors whose books have scaled to the top to be taken with themselves, hardly humble, but that’s not the case here. When you get to know him, you realize he’s a man of great depth, with a wonderful soul and a deeply felt sense of humanity. When he talks about treating patients it’s with reverence (“There’s a saintliness I saw in so many of my patients,” he told me) – as if each time he crosses the threshold into a patient’s room he’s entering hallowed ground.

Verghese has written two searing works of nonfiction: My Own Country, a paean to the young men he treated for HIV-AIDS when it was just emerging as a human scourge, and The Tennis Partner, a loving eulogy to a best buddy whose life went off the rails. Then the blockbuster novel Cutting for Stone: atop the New York Times best seller list for two years and selling more than one million copies. It’s a sweeping tale of how time transforms family – jolting the reader from the first page, where a Roman Catholic nun gives birth to twins boys and dies on the operating table. I read it during the height of the global economic chaos in 2009 and was transported each evening, thankfully, to another world outside of monetary meltdowns and fiscal maelstrom.

In this 1:2:1 podcast, Verghese and I talk about time’s impact on medicine, novels and life. (Time is the theme of the current issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.) About life, he tells me, “There’s a poignancy to living because we won’t live forever… As John Irving says in one of his books, ‘Life is a terminal condition. It’s about to run out on all of us…’ There’s no exception to that. And I think, in a way, that’s what makes life so beautiful.”

This podcast is accompanied by a Q&A with Verghese in the magazine.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED, Stanford’s Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone: Two years as a New York Times best seller and Abraham Verghese at Work: A New York Times profile
Photo by Jason Henry

Health Policy, Patient Care, Podcasts

Steven Brill’s Bitter Pill

Steven Brill's Bitter Pill

Bitter PillA New York Times review called Steven Brill’s book, America’s Bitter Pill, “a thriller.” Brill’s tome on the building of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare, “a thriller?” I thought. What recent treatise on the inner workings of public policy has garnered that sort of description? Didn’t the term “thriller” belong to writers like Paula Hawkins, Dean Koontz, Gillian Flynn and James Patterson? But Brill’s meticulous narrative of how Obamacare was constructed is a public-policy thriller, and the suspense he writes about is how the law was brought from broth to soup.

While Brill is hardly a public-policy advocate (he’s a long time investigative reporter), he does laud the president’s herculean effort to give millions of Americans access to affordable health care. He just doesn’t believe that any of the big “players” in health care – hospitals, device makers, insurance companies or pharmaceuticals –  felt a pinch of economic pain, and he sees America’s health care system still as an old “jalopy” financially out of control and enriching special interests.

The seed for the book was spawned in a 24,000-word article in TIME magazine in April 2013. A year later, while reporting on the rollout of the ACA, Brill was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm – flipping the story and putting investigative reporter onto the operating table as a very real person needing cardiac surgery.

As he told NPR’s Terry Gross:

At that moment I wasn’t worried about costs; I wasn’t worried about a cost-benefit analysis of this drug or this medical device; I wasn’t worried about health-care policy. It drove home to me the reality that in addition to being a tough political issue because of all of the money involved, health care is a toxic political issue because of all of the fear and emotion involved.

At the end of my conversation I asked Brill if there was one question he’d been surprised that he’d not been asked during his media blitz, which began with a rollout by Lesley Stahl on CBS’ 6o Minutes.  “Yes,” he said, “you just touched on it.” How would his book had been different if he’d not had an aortic aneurism, a cardiac operation and become a patient? So how would Chapter One have begun?

I hope you’ll listen to my latest 1:2:1 podcast to hear what he has to say.

Addiction, Health Policy, Parenting, Pediatrics, Podcasts, Public Health

Discussing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ call to put the brakes on marijuana legalization

Discussing the American Academy of Pediatrics' call to put the brakes on marijuana legalization

A wave of changes in state laws on the use of marijuana for medicinal and recreational purposes has stirred the American Academy of Pediatrics. It’s taken 10 years for the AAP to update its policy on the legalization of marijuana, and they released its new one on Monday.

74381759_e5a563cf3d_zThe organization still opposes legalization but it has opened the door to reform in several ways. First, recognizing that minority kids bear the brunt of criminal penalties for pot use, they call for decriminalization. Second, they call for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to reclassify marijuana from a Schedule 1 listing for controlled substances to a Schedule 2. This action would effectively allow more research to be conducted and in turn scientifically determine where marijuana is most effective as a treatment. A review by the federal government is currently underway.

I asked Stanford pediatrician Seth Ammerman, MD, the lead author of the statement, what the AAP was trying to achieve with its policy redo and why such a restrictive stance on legalization since the train for legalization – recreational and medicinal –  seems to have already left the “coffee house.”

In this 1:2:1 podcast, Ammerman cites major two concerns. First, if legalized and commercialized, marijuana will become a big business, and the same marketing efforts by tobacco companies that encouraged teens to take up cigarettes will lasso them to pot smoking. “Well, aren’t kids smoking pot already?” I asked. Ammerman fully realizes that any teen who wants pot can readily buy it – legalization, to the AAP, is an imprimatur. Secondly, Ammerman cited, as does the new policy statement, the compelling and growing scientific evidence that the brain in formation continues to gel through the teen years and into the 20s. Marijuana, just like alcohol and any other drug, is likely to play a lot of bad tricks as the prefrontal cortex solidifies.

As described in the policy paper:

New research has also demonstrated that the adolescent brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex areas controlling judgment and decision-making, is not fully developed until the mid-20s, raising questions about how any substance use may affect the developing brain. Research has shown that the younger an adolescent begins using drugs, including marijuana, the more likely it is that drug dependence or addiction will develop in adulthood.

Ammerman says that the AAP will follow closely what happens in states where marijuana has been legalized both for health and recreation, and it will look carefully at what future evidence suggests. Clearly, there’s still a lot of smoke around this issue.

Previously: To protect teens’ health, marijuana should not be legalized, says American Academy of Pediatrics
Photo by Paul-Henri S

Aging, Medicine and Society, Podcasts

Living loooooooonger: A conversation on longevity

Living loooooooonger: A conversation on longevity

Hourglass

As I age, I’m becoming more and more interested in how I can prolong a healthy life. I hope I have a long life but more importantly, I want a healthy one.  I’ve witnessed the other side. My father died in his late 80s; his final years ravaged by Parkinson’s. He was infantile and had bolts of anger and confusion. It wasn’t pretty. In her early 90s, my mother had a stroke. She passed away from heart complications after being aphasic for nearly a year. This 30-plus year English teacher lost all ability to converse in the final year of her life; she was reduced to incoherency. As I held their hands or fed them, I kept on telling myself, not me. This is NOT how I want to live my final days.

In recent years, aging research has been turned upside down. As Stanford bioethicist Christopher Scott, PhD, and his co-author, Laura DeFrancesco, PhD, write in Nature Biotechnology, it has a new face and it’s longevity:

How science approaches the questions of aging has changed. Lifestyle, environment, epidemiology, nutrition, genetics and the tools of big data are coming together in a host of new ways. The new approach – called longevity research – is an effort to extend the period of healthy life by slowing the biological process of aging.

I can see the scrawl on the wall: Aging research is dead. Long live longevity research.

Penn bioethicist and public-policy guru Zeke Emanuel, MD, stirred a recent debate about how long a viable  life when he thrust his body up against today’s immortality zeal of the baby boomer. In an Atlantic article entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” he theorized that post-75, it’s all a pain. His article is a great read that might depress you if 75 is within focus, yet it poses one question clear for each of us: How do we want to live our final days on earth?

Will longevity research produce answers that quell the anxiety stirred by the belief that the aging process means everything is headed south? Scott and DeFrancesco signal that while aging research “failed to come up with any viable approaches, let alone therapies to forestall the ravages of aging,” longevity research in animal models “have shown that life span is indeed malleable, that it can be manipulated by genetics or the environment…” Is there a stairway to longevity emerging in science?

The Nature Biotechnology paper poses some fascinating questions as the science of longevity joins with a new generation of commercial entities that hope to seize its potential. To be sure, longevity research will need to avoid inflated hype. The authors say that Craig Venter, PhD, who has started a company, Human Longevity (HLI) is “….frustrated that the handful of fully sequences human genomes, including his own, has provided little insight into aging.” But I assume, as do the authors, that Venter’s bet is that there’s an abundance of sunshine down this path and science will emerge with ways to manipulate aging that will lead to better health and disease management. But when?

In my latest 1:2:1 podcast I take up these questions with Scott as the longevity era of science develops and matures. My colleague Krista Conger also authored a blog post earlier this week on Scott’s feature.

Previously: Golden years? Researcher explores longevity research and the companies banking on its success, Exploring the value of longevity with bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, Tick tock goes the clock – is aging the biggest illness of all? and Researchers aim to extend how long – and how well – we live
Photo by Michael Himbeault

Neuroscience, Podcasts, Science, Stanford News

Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome: Seeking gains for the brain

Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome: Seeking gains for the brain

14601014695_30cfe1972d_zBill Newsome, PhD, knows the brain perhaps as well as the back of his hand. The Stanford neurobiologist was vice chair of the federal BRAIN Initiative launched by President Obama, and he directs the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. From that spot, he’s just funded a first round of interdisciplinary grants to Stanford faculty that he calls “risk taking.”  The need, he told me in this just-published 1:2:1 podcast, is critical:

When biomedical research money gets tight, as it now is, the funding agencies tend to get conservative. Right now we have these talented faculty at Stanford, many of them young faculty. They’re at the most creative parts of their career.  They’re at a place where they’re thinking big and dreaming big. We wanted to create this mechanism to allow them to do that.

I asked Newsome about the greatest challenges for neuroscience in the next few years. He had one word: technology. “If we were to improve the technology… If we could read out signals from the human brain and read in signals, actually do the circuit-tuning in the human brain non-invasively, at a spatial scale on the order of a millimeter or less and with fairly rapid time, it would revolutionize neuroscience,” he said.

So paint the picture, I asked, and  look ten years out. What would you like to see as far as progress? He told me:

I would like to see fundamental, substantive change on at least one devastating neurological or psychiatric disease. I don’t really care which one. Give me Alzheimer’s. Give me autism. Give me depression. Give me Parkinson’s disease. At the end of 10 years, if we can really have a breakthrough in the understanding of what causes one of those diseases mechanistically and have a therapy that dramatically improves people’s lives… I would say, ‘It’s worth it. We’ve done our job.’

Any worries or words of caution? He laments the current state of federal funding for science and worries that fiscal constraints will squeeze out young star scientists. “How do you keep convincing talented people to come into the field?” he said. “We’re deprioritizing science… How do we convince our brightest, our best, that this is a field with a really bright future?”

Previously: Deciphering “three pounds of goo” with Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome, Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more, BRAIN Initiative and the Human Brain Project: Aiming to understand how the brain works, Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives and Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute
Photo by Allan Ajifo

Mental Health, Podcasts

My descent into madness – a conversation with author Susannah Cahalan

My descent into madness - a conversation with author Susannah Cahalan

Cahalan illustrationWhen you talk to Susannah Cahalan on the phone, you’d never imagine that this is a woman who has been to hell and back. Without warning 5 years ago, she descended into a nightmare of paranoia, hallucinations, catatonia and near death. One moment she’s a journalist living the high wire life in the New York media world and the next, her brain is swimming in a world of severe mental illness without any diagnosis.

With the precision of an investigative journalist, Cahalan recreates what happened to her in the New York Times-bestselling memoir, Brain on Fire, My Month of Madness. There she describes the terror of what it’s like to be a patient without a medical diagnosis. A human being lost in a sea of clinical maybes. Violent, psychotic and considered a flight risk, she was all but a shadow of her former self.

Luckily, she did eventually find clinical clarity. The diagnosis: anti-NMDA receptor autoimmune encephalitis - a disease only discovered in 2007.

Cahalan’s back at work now at the New York Post. She’s writing book reviews, science and health articles, all with a new perspective. In this 1:2:1 podcast and Stanford Medicine magazine piece, I asked her if she was a different person now, and she told me you can’t go through something like this and not be. “It has changed everything.”

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system
Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Behavioral Science, Pain, Podcasts

Chronic pain: Getting your head around it

Chronic pain: Getting your head around it

Less Pain cover - smallerI have to admit: When it comes to pain, I’m a total wimp. The few times I’ve approached anything near chronic pain was in my neck – the result from unilateral breathing as a lap swimmer. When I had the pain, I was obsessed with it, and it was a complete drag on my psyche. My painful experience gave me deep empathy for anyone who lives with chronic pain.

Beth Darnall, PhD, is a clinical associate professor at the medical school and a clinical psychologist at Stanford’s Pain Management Center. She has practiced this unique specialty – pain psychology – for the past 10 years, working with chronic pain sufferers to find alternative means to controlling their pain rather than being stuck in a downward spiral of opioid use. And she’s written a new book, Less Pain, Fewer Pills, where she details a methodical approach that enables one to get their “head” out from their pain.

Clearly it’s not all attitude, but a significant portion of pain is how we think about it and catastrophize it and therefore unknowingly give it strength. She told me in this 1:2:1 podcast that “early life trauma can lead to changes in the central nervous system and immune systems… that could prime someone to experience chronic pain later on.” She also said:

We have just pure genetics, an underlying predisposition to acquire chronic pain… But we also know that a person’s psychological makeup, what the person brings to the table, is a big predictor in terms of whether or not their pain resolves or whether it becomes entrenched.

I asked Darnall whether her role as a clinical psychologist helps patients rethink their pain. She told me, “A key message that I bring forward to the table is that pain isn’t something that just happens to us. Once we acquire chronic pain we are constantly participating with our pain in terms of our thoughts, our beliefs, our emotions, and our choices. If we can focus on that and optimize our control there, then we can set ourselves up to have the best response to all of the treatments that our doctors are going to be trying for us.”

If you suffer from chronic pain or know someone who does, I hope you’ll find this conversation with Darnall of value.

Previously: Stanford researchers address the complexities of chronic pain, Exploring the mystery of pain, Relieving Pain in America: A new report from the Institute of Medicine, Stanford’s Sean Mackey discusses recent advances in pain research and treatment and Oh what a pain

Podcasts, Stanford News

The amazing photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg

The amazing photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg

I had heard from Rosanne Spector, the editor of Stanford Medicine, that our design team had hired an East Coast photographer to shoot for the current surgery issue. It’s surgery, so of course we wanted vibrant pictures that tell their own story. But not until I interviewed Max Aguilera-Hellweg for this 1:2:1 podcast did I realize what an extraordinary photographer we hired and what an an amazing career he’s had to boot.

At 18, Aguilera-Hellweg apprenticed with famed Rolling Stone photographer Annie Liebovitz. Over the years, he’s shot photos for a multitude of international publications including Stern, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, Esquire, the Washington Post, National Geographic and The New York Times. And he has one more credit to his name: MD. Yep. He’s a physician. At age 43 he received a medical degree from Tulane University with a specialty in internal medicine. He’s well-equipped to both shoot photos inside the OR and lend a hand in case of an emergency.

We asked Aguilera-Hellweg to shoot a panoply of photos for the issue, and they’re extraordinary. He also shot the cover – one that I think conveys the essence of what surgery is all about: the hands. So listen to this podcast and explore the amazing world of Max Aguilera-Hellweg: photographer, physician, Renaissance man.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

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