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Ask Stanford Med, Neuroscience, Surgery

A Stanford neurosurgeon discusses advances in treating brain tumors

A Stanford neurosurgeon discusses advances in treating brain tumors

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Last year, an estimated 70,000 people were diagnosed with a primary brain tumor, which originates and remains in the brain, and far more will develop metastatic brain tumors, those that begin as cancer elsewhere in the body and spread to the brain. Although physicians face a number of challenges in treating these tumors, the encouraging news is that advances in technology and new therapies are improving patient outcomes.

During a Stanford Health Library event on Thursday, Steven Chang, MD, director of the Stanford Neurogenetics Program and the Stanford Neuromolecular Innovation Program, will deliver an update on the latest in surgical and non-surgical treatments of brain tumors. (The lecture will also be webcasted for those unable to attend.) In anticipation of the talk, Chang answered some questions related to the topics he’ll be addressing.

Why has a greater understanding of genetics and the biology of tumors improved physicians’ understanding of how patients will respond to certain therapies?

Having a greater understanding of the genetics and biology of brain tumors helps neurosurgeons to tailor treatments for each patient. In essence, we are able to deliver personalized medicine if we understand which subsets of brain tumors respond to specific treatments. For example, we now understand that gliomas with certain genetic makers are more likely to respond to chemotherapy treatments. The presence or absence of these genetic markers will also help guide patients in determining which clinical trials it may be most appropriate for them to enroll in.

How have advances in brain-mapping technologies made a difference in treating low-grade gliomas, which are slow growing and often affect younger patients?

Low-grade gliomas don’t typically contrast enhance on brain MRI scans. Furthermore, low-grade gliomas are more likely than higher-grade gliomas to have appearances similar to normal brain tissue, with no obvious color or consistency distinction between tumor and normal brain. These factors make resection of low-grade gliomas potentially more complex than high-grade gliomas, which often have distinct appearances from normal brain tissue. Advances in brain-mapping technologies include both image guided navigation and electrophysiologic mapping. Image-guided navigation consists of the use of MR imaging to provide real-time guidance during tumor resections. High-speed computer workstations provide images that show neurosurgeons exactly where they are with respect to brain anatomy during tumor resections. Electrophysiologic mapping is the use of specific electrical simulations of the brain tissue to identify eloquent brain cortex. By mapping out these critical brain regions, the neurosurgeon can safely avoid them when performing tumor resection.

In what ways have improvements in imaging technology over the last decade changed the treatment approach for both surgical and non-surgical treatment of brain tumors?

Improvements in imaging technology over the last several years have provided valuable tools for neurosurgeons in the treatment of brain tumors. A significant advance in surgical treatment of brain tumors has been the development of intraoperative MRI scanners. This allows a surgeon to perform a tumor resection, and then, post resection, perform a set of MR imaging directly in the operating room. If this MR imaging shows residual tumor, the surgeon has an opportunity to perform a further resection prior to completing the surgical operation. Additional imaging advances include functional MR imaging. This provides a graphic representation of critical functions such as speech or motor function. This is useful in determining both whether a patient is inoperative candidate and in assessing risk of the surgical resection.

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Aging, Mental Health, Parenting, Research

Girls at high risk for developing depression show signs of stress and premature aging

Girls at high risk for developing depression show signs of stress and premature aging

14465-telomeres_newsAs we age and our cells divide, caps at the ends of our chromosomes called telomeres shorten. When a telomere grows too short, it will die or lose its ability to divide, which causes our skin to wrinkle or sag, as well as damage to our organs. Previous research has shown that depression, chronic stress and inflammation can accelerate this process, causing premature aging and making our bodies more susceptible to infections and disease.

In an effort to better understand the connection between stress, depression and changes in the body, Stanford psychologist Ian Gotlib, PhD, and colleagues studied healthy girls with a family history of depression and compared them to a group of their peers without that medical background. During the experiment, researchers measured participants’ stress response through a series of tests and analyzed their DNA samples for telomere length. According to a Stanford Report story:

Before this study, “No one had examined telomere length in young children who are at risk for developing depression,” Gotlib said.

Healthy but high-risk 12-year-old girls had significantly shorter telomeres, a sign of premature aging.

“It’s the equivalent in adults of six years of biological aging,” Gotlib said, but “it’s not at all clear that that makes them 18, because no one has done this measurement in children.”

The researchers are continuing to monitor the girls from the original study. “It’s looking like telomere length is predicting who’s going to become depressed and who’s not,” Gotlib said.

Based on these findings, researchers recommended that girls at high-risk for depression learn stress reduction techniques.

Previously: How meditation can influence gene activity, Shrinking chromosome caps spell aging cells, sniffles, sneezes… and cognitive decline?, Study finds phobias may speed biological aging and Study suggests anticipation of stress may accelerate cellular aging
Photo by Paulius Brazauskas/Shutterstock

Cardiovascular Medicine, Mental Health, Research

The link between mental-health conditions and cardiovascular disease

The link between mental-health conditions and cardiovascular disease

14496537236_932d9a9acd_zA growing body of research has shown the connection between our emotional well-being and physical health. Among the latest findings: Schizophrenia, bipolar disorders and major depressive and anxiety disorders can greatly increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke.

In a study presented at this year’s Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Vancouver, Canada, researchers examined connections between mental-health conditions, use of psychiatric medication, and heart health using data from the Canadian Community Health Survey. Medical News Today reports:

They found that patients who had a mental illness at any point in their life were twice as likely to have had a stroke or experienced heart disease than the general population, while patients who had not experienced heart disease or stroke had a higher long-term risk of cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, patients who used psychiatric medications for their mental illness were twice as likely to have heart disease and three times as likely to have had a stroke than those who did not use such medications.

“This population is at high risk,” says [Katie Goldie, PhD, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto], “and it’s even greater for people with multiple mental health issues.”

Goldie and colleague said that there are three main factors that contribute to mental-health patients’ increase cardiovascular risk. They are: lifestyle behaviors, such as tobacco and alcohol use, poor diet and physical inactivity; psychiatric medications, which can induce weight gain and inhibit the body from breaking down fats; and inadequate access to health care.

The findings are significant in light of statistics (.pdf) from the National Alliance of Mental Health showing that 1 in 4 adults in the United States experience a mental health disorder in annually and that serious mental illness costs the nation $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

Previously: Examining how mental stress on the heart affects men and women differently, Study shows link between traffic noise, heart attack and Study offers insights into how depression may harm the heart
Photo by Holly Lay

Ask Stanford Med, Health and Fitness

Director of Stanford Runner’s Injury Clinic discusses treating and preventing common injuries

Director of Stanford Runner's Injury Clinic discusses treating and preventing common injuries

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It may surprise you to learn that past studies show that runners have a 50 percent chance of sustaining an injury that disrupts their training, and those that compete in marathons have an incidence rate as high as 90 percent. But don’t hang up your sneakers just yet. Many common aches and pains that nag runners can easily be treated or avoided.

On Thursday, Michael Fredericson, MD, who is director of the Stanford Runner’s Injury Clinic and has been head team physician with the Stanford Sports Medicine Program since 1992, will talk about the latest running prevention and treatment methods during a Stanford Health Library lecture. (For those unable to attend the event in person, you can watch the live webcast starting at 7 PM Pacifiic time.) To kick off the conversation, I reached out to Fredericson to discuss some of the topics of his upcoming talk, including the harms of overstriding, the benefits of cross-training, and remedies for prevalent joint problems. He and Adam Tenforde, MD, a sports medicine fellow at Stanford, responded to my questions.

How can overstriding lead to injury?

The term “overstriding” refers to running with the foot striking the ground too far forward from normal stride length. This results in heel strike pattern that may increase stress in the hip and knee joints. Research has shown that forefoot strike patterns tend to reduce stress on the knees and hips, although this may lead to greater stress on the foot and ankle. We conduct a clinic called RunSafe, where we evaluate gait of runners using video and markers. More efficient stride frequency is 90 strides per leg per minute. When a runner overstrides, this may result in a lower stride rate and an inefficient gait. We evaluate for the causes of overstriding, including poor hip extensor strength (weak gluteal muscles), decreased flexibility and technique and encourage correction of these biomechanical contributors. Also, we may suggest shoes with reduced weight, such as ‘minimalist shoes’ as these tend to encourage a runner to run with a more mid-foot strike pattern. However, we caution any changes in shoe type or technique be introduced gradually to decrease risk of developing an injury from changes in gait pattern that stress the body in a new way.

Why is it important for runners to cross-train?

Cross-training refers to forms of aerobic exercise that do not involve running. Doing exercises that do not involve the repetitive ground-impact experienced during running help to rest tired muscles and decrease stress on bones, assisting in recovery while building aerobic capacity. There are no established forms of cross-training to prevent injuries, but performing exercises that do not involve impact loading through the legs, such as elliptical trainer, cycling or deep water running may be helpful.

Many runners select shoes that compensate for how their foot pronates. But recent research shows that pronating too much or too little may not actually increase a runner’s risk of injury. How important is pronation and foot type in preventing injuries?

We evaluate foot type and pronation during our RunSafe clinics. Pronation is a normal motion that helps to distribute forces while landing through the foot and ankle, reducing stresses through the lower extremities. If the foot abruptly stops moving from too much or too little pronation, the other joints and lower limbs may absorb these forces and can become injured. Foot type (having too high an arch or too flat a foot) may also result in higher forces in the legs and joints through associated biomechanics. Foot type and concerns of pronation need to be put into context of prior injury history, as recent research has suggested that foot type and pronation do not necessarily predict future injury risk.

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Cancer, Events, Patient Care, Public Health

“Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness

"Stop skipping dessert:" A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness

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Updated 10-23-14: Dr. Kalanithi spoke about this topic on campus earlier this week; more on the event, and his insights, can be found here.

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10-20-14: When Paul Kalanithi, MD, a chief resident in neurological surgery at Stanford, was diagnosed at age 36 with stage IV lung cancer he struggled to learn how to live with conviction despite a prognosis of uncertainty. He found comfort in seven words from writer Samuel Beckett, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

That mantra has given Kalanithi the strength to face his own mortality and have tough conversations with his wife and loved ones about the future. Tomorrow evening, he’ll join palliative-care specialist Timothy Quill, MD, for a discussion about end-of-life decision-making. The campus event is free and open to the public; no registration is required.

As a preview to the talk, Kalanithi talked with me about his experience as a patient and about the importance of end-of-life decisions.

How has your prognoses changed the way you talk to patients and their loved ones about grim news?

In large part, the way I talk to patients and their families hasn’t changed, because I had excellent role models in training. I remember witnessing a pediatric neurosurgeon talk parents through the diagnosis of their daughter’s brain tumor. He delivered not just the medical facts, but laid out the emotional terrain as well: the confusion, the fear, the anger and – above all – the need for support from and for each other. I always strove to emulate that model: to educate patients on the medical facts isn’t enough. You have to also find a way to gesture towards the emotional and existential landmarks.

Seeing it from the other side, it’s really hard, as a patient, to ask the tough questions. It’s important for the doctor to help initiate these conversations. I think it’s worth addressing prognosis and quality of life with patients, asking them what they think. My own assumptions about my prognosis were way off base. As a doctor, you can’t provide definite answers, but you can remove misconceptions and refocus patients’ energy.

Finally, I think, if you are the oncologist, it’s important to establish yourself as a go-to for any questions. Patients are bombarded with well-meaning advice, from dietary recommendations to holistic therapy to cutting-edge research. It can easily occupy all a patient’s time, when you ought to also spend time thinking about the priorities in your life. Physicians can also advise patients, as my dad would insist, that they can stop skipping dessert.

What is your advice to patients who are struggling with the certainty of death and the uncertainty of life?

I’ve written a little bit about facing terminal illness in The New York Times and The Paris Review. I found the experience difficult. I still find it difficult. It is a struggle. The problem is not simply learning to accept death. Because even if you do come to terms with finitude, you still wake up each morning and have a whole day to face. Your life keeps going on, whether you are ready for it to or not.

In some ways, having a terminal illness makes you no different from anyone else: Everyone dies. You have to find the balance – neither being overwhelmed by impending death nor completely ignoring it.

You have to find the things that matter to you, in two categories. The first is of ‘the bucket list’ sort. My wife and I always imagined revisiting our honeymoon spot on, say, our 20th wedding anniversary. But I didn’t realize how important to me that was until we decided to go back earlier (on our 7th anniversary, instead, about four months after I was diagnosed).

The second is, as all people should be doing, figuring out how to live true to your values. The tricky part is that, as you go through illness, your values may be constantly changing. So you have to figure out what matters to you, and keep figuring it out. It’s like someone just took away your credit card, and now you really have to budget. You may decide that you want to spend your time working. But two months later, you might feel differently, and say, you really want to learn saxophone, or devote yourself to the church. I think that’s okay – death may be a one-time event, but living with a terminal illness is a process.

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Cardiovascular Medicine, Men's Health, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Examining how mental stress on the heart affects men and women differently

Examining how mental stress on the heart affects men and women differently

stress_womanPast research has shown that stress, anger and depression can increase a person’s risk for stroke and heart attacks. Now new findings published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology show that cardiovascular and psychological reactions to mental stress vary based on gender.

In the study (subscription required), participants with heart disease completed three mentally stressful tasks. Researchers monitored changes in their heart using echocardiography, measured blood pressure and heart rate, and took blood samples during the test and rest periods. According to a journal release:

Researchers from the Duke Heart Center found that while men had more changes in blood pressure and heart rate in response to the mental stress, more women experienced myocardial ischemia, decreased blood flow to the heart. Women also experienced increased platelet aggregation, which is the start of the formation of blood clots, more than men. The women compared with men also expressed a greater increase in negative emotions and a greater decrease in positive emotions during the mental stress tests.

“The relationship between mental stress and cardiovascular disease is well known,” said the study lead author Zainab Samad, M.D., M.H.S., assistant professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina. “This study revealed that mental stress affects the cardiovascular health of men and women differently. We need to recognize this difference when evaluating and treating patients for cardiovascular disease.”

Previously: Study shows link between traffic noise, heart attack, Ask Stanford Med: Cardiologist Jennifer Tremmel responds to questions on women’s heart health and Study offers insights into how depression may harm the heart
Photo by anna gutermuth

Neuroscience, Research, Sleep, Videos

How sleep acts as a cleaning system for the brain

How sleep acts as a cleaning system for the brain

Here’s one more reason why getting a good night’s sleep is critical to your health. As neuroscientist Jeff Iliff, PhD, explains in this just released TEDMED video, the brain has a specialized waste-disposal system that’s only active when we’re slumbering. Watch the talk above to learn how this system clears the brain of toxic metabolic byproducts that could lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Previously: Why sleeping in on the weekends may not be beneficial to your health, The high price of interrupted sleep on your health and Examining how sleep quality and duration affect cognitive function as we age

Mental Health, Research, Technology

How social media can affect your mood

How social media can affect your mood

Facebook_10314A close friend engages in a yearly media detox, where for a period of time he limits his time and activity spent on the Internet. He only answers e-mails requiring an immediate response, spends few minutes reading current news and avoids engaging in social media, shopping online or perusing gossip and entertainment sites. Another friend goes on annual eight-day meditation retreats and turns off her phone for her entire stay. Both report that these periodic breaks significantly improve their moods.

Past research supports their personal experience and shows that while many of use social media to feel connected to others, it can also leave us feeling frustrated, lonely and depressed.

A study (subscription required) recently published online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior offers context to these earlier findings and suggests that when we are feeling blue we use social media sites, such as Facebook, to find friends that are also having a bad day, suffered a setback or going through a tough time in their lives.

During the experiment, researchers gave participants a facial emotion recognition test and randomly told them their performance was “terrible” or “excellent” to put them in positive or negative moods. The individuals were than asked to review profiles on a new social networking site. The profiles used dollar sign or heart icons to make users appear successful and attractive or unattractive and unsuccessful. All profile photos were blurred and the status updates were relatively mundane and similar in tone. PsychCentral reports:

Overall, the researchers found that people tended to spend more time on the profiles of people who were rated as successful and attractive.

But participants who had been put in a negative mood spent significantly more time than others browsing the profiles of people who had been rated as unsuccessful and unattractive.

“If you need a self-esteem boost, you’re going to look at people worse off than you,” [Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, PhD, co-author of the study] said.

“You’re probably not going to be looking at the people who just got a great new job or just got married.

“One of the great appeals of social network sites is that they allow people to manage their moods by choosing who they want to compare themselves to.”

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions on the psychological effects of Internet use and Elderly adults turn to social media to stay connected, stave off loneliness
Photo by Paul Walsh

Big data, In the News, Patient Care, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Examining the potential of big data to transform health care

Examining the potential of big data to transform health care

Back in 2011, rheumatologist Jennifer Frankovich, MD, and colleagues at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford used aggregate patient data from electronic medical records in making a difficult and quick decision in the care of a 13-year-old girl with a rare disease.

Today on San Francisco’s KQED, Frankovich discusses the unusual case and the potential of big data to transform the practice of medicine. Stanford systems-medicine chief Atul Butte, MD, PhD, also weighed in on the topic in the segment by saying, “The idea here is [that] the scientific method itself is growing obsolete.” More from the piece:

Big data is more than medical records and environmental data, Butte says. It could (or already does) include the results of every clinical trial that’s ever been done, every lab test, Google search, tweet. The data from your fitBit.

Eventually, the challenge won’t be finding the data, it’ll be figuring out how to organize it all. “I think the computational side of this is, let’s try to connect everything to everything,” Butte says.

Frankovich agrees with Butte, noting that developing systems to accurately interpret genetic, medical or other health metrics is key if such practices are going to become the standard model of care.

Previously: How efforts to mine electronic health records influence clinical care, NIH Director: “Big Data should inspire us”, Chief technology officer of the United States to speak at Big Data in Biomedicine conference and A new view of patient data: Using electronic medical records to guide treatment

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Stanford News

Free online Stanford course examines medical education in the new millennium

Free online Stanford course examines medical education in the new millennium

Prober_092314At this year’s Stanford Medicine X, executive director Larry Chu, MD, announced the launch of a new group of initiatives that would expand the conference and “quicken the pace of changing the culture of health care.” In addition to continuing to build community, the Medicine X Academy will aim to use technology, the principles of design thinking, and a model of inclusivity to redefine medical education.

“We’re moving from talking to doing,” said Chu. “We want to move the conversation earlier into the education system so students begin to think differently about health care and [so we can] improve medical education with the input of all stakeholders.”

As part of the academy, Chu, Kyle Harrison, MD, clinical assistant professor at the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital, and Nikita Joshi, MD, an academic fellow at Stanford, will begin teaching a massive open online course (MOOC) course titled “Medical Education in the New Millennium” this Thursday. Anyone can enroll in the class through Stanford OpenEdX. Additionally, it will be webcasted on the Medicine X website and live tweeted on the @StanfordMedX feed.

The eleven-week course will ask the fundamental question: What is the definition of medical education? Participants will explore a variety of topics including how to improve the educational experiences of today’s Millennial medical students and residents; how patients and caregivers can be active participants in their care teams; how MOOCs, social media, simulation and virtual reality change the face of medical education; and how to make learning continuous, engaging, and scalable in an age of increasing clinical demands and limited work hours.

Among the class guest lectures are Charles Prober, MD, senior associate dean for medical education at Stanford; Kirsten Ostherr, PhD, an English professor at Rice University and co-founder of the Medical Futures Lab; ePatient Britt Johnson; and medical and nursing students from Duke, Stanford and other universities.

As noted on the course website, the course is targeted not only towards medical students and educators but also patients, caregivers, and anyone who wants “to join a conversation about how to improve medical education.”

Previously: Medicine X aims to “fill the gaps” in medical educationRethinking the traditional four-year medical curriculum and A closer look at using the “flipped classroom” model at the School of Medicine
Photo of Charles Prober by EdTech Stanford University

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