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Humor, Media, Medicine and Society, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

Did extraterrestrials chew up my news release, or does artificial intelligence still have a ways to go?

UFO

Almost two years ago, in a Scope blog entry titled “Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?” I posed the question: “Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?”

I think it’s safe to say we’re not there yet. Either that, or extraterrestrials have been reading my news releases and finding them puzzling.

Last week we put out a news release I’d written about a dramatic discovery by Stanford radiologists Mike Zeineh, MD, PhD, Brian Rutt, PhD, and their colleagues. In brief, they’d analyzed postmortem slabs of brain tissue from people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, compared them with equivalent brain-tissue slabs taken from people who’d died without any Alzheimer’s-like symptoms, and noticed some striking and intriguing differences. In a key brain region essential to memory formation, Zeineh and Rutt had spotted – only in Alzheimer’s brains, not normal ones – iron deposits engulfed by mobile inflammatory cells. This observation’s potentially big implications were plenty newsworthy.

It so happened that, on the day we issued the release, a high-powered five-day-long meeting on Alzheimer’s sponsored by the eponymous Alzheimer’s Association was in session in Washington, D.C. As a result, many of the brain-oriented science writers to whom my news release was targeted were preoccupied.

I was a little anxious about that. So, the other day, I turned to my favorite search engine to see if the release had managed to get some traction in the popular press. As I’d feared, the Washington conference had sucked up a lot of the oxygen in the earthly neuroscience arena.

But apparently, the release had done better in Outer Space. I saw that it had been picked up by, for example, Red Orbit (a website that I’ve always assumed, based on its name, emanates from Mars).

My eyes were next drawn to a link to an unfamiliar outfit called AZ News, which bills itself in a tagline as an “International Online News Site.” I clicked on the link, and saw a news report with the same title as my release. I started reading the text below.

The first words were: “In autopsy mind hankie from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…” I don’t know what an “autopsy mind hankie” is, but I suspect it’s a mind-blower.

I checked our release. That’s not what I’d written at all. What I’d said was, “In postmortem brain tissue from people not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s…”

It seemed pretty clear that the release had been translated into some language – I had no idea which – and then, for some reason, reverse-translated back into English. I read on.

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Infectious Disease, Media, Public Health, Stanford News

Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life

Stanford doctor-author brings historic figure Jonas Salk to life

JacobsStanford professor emerita Charlotte Jacobs, MD, spent the past decade with the ghost of polio vaccine creator Jonas Salk, MD, the subject of her second biography, Jonas Salk: A Life. She dug through archives, conducted over a hundred interviews and read countless first-hand accounts and period news.

But she still had a difficult time choosing the opening scene for her book, the first written biography of the man hailed as an international hero for his role in ending the polio epidemics that ravaged the world during the first half of the 20th century.

Should she start with start with Salk’s humble beginnings as a child born to poor Jewish immigrants in New York City, dive into the life-saving research that propelled him to fame and antagonized his scientific peers, or begin at the end of his life, when he was striving to regain his prestige by seeking an HIV vaccine?

The choice for Jacobs became clear when, during a dinner at a writers’ residency, she described her book and its subject to her fellow participants. As the mostly younger writers quietly nodded, Jacobs realized they not only didn’t know who Salk was, they had no idea of the scope or severity of the polio epidemics. Jacobs, a child during the 1950’s, has chilling memories of this time.

Salk book cover“It was a fear that hovered over us every summer,” Jacobs recalled, “no matter what you did — eat your vegetables go to church, mind your mother — you could be the crippler’s next victim. And it was mostly children who caught the disease.”

Jacobs begins her book, excerpted in the new issue of Stanford Medicine, with a vivid account of the New York City 1916 outbreak. That year, in New York state alone, 8,900 people were infected, 2,400 died and many of the survivors were paralyzed or crippled.

The book has received numerous positive reviews. While Jacobs is happy with the attention, she is most excited for her audience to learn about the remarkable work that Salk and his team did in developing the vaccine and how the American public, through the March of Dimes, funded and carried out the first vaccine trials.

“This trial was run by volunteers; housewives collected the data,” she said. “Never before, and never again, has the public itself conducted a trial of this magnitude.”

Having read the excerpt in Stanford Medicine, I’m eager to read more.

Kim Smuga-Otto is a student in UC Santa Cruz’s science communication program and a writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs.

Previously: This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skinHenry Kaplan’s crusade against Hodgkin’s disease, TED Talk discusses the movement to eradicate polio, and Researchers tackle unusual challenge in polio eradication
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Media, Neuroscience

Neurologist explores accuracy of the brain in the movie Inside Out

Neurologist explores accuracy of the brain in the movie Inside Out

brain imageHave you seen the movie “Inside Out” yet? I went over the weekend with my family, and despite reports that some parents weep throughout the last 20 minutes, I only shed a few tears. (A real miracle given what a sap I normally am when it comes to Pixar films – don’t even get me started on the last scene of “Monsters, Inc.”)

The movie takes place inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, with different characters playing the role of various emotions (joy, anger, sadness, etc.). I found the movie’s journey through the brain visually stunning and highly entertaining, but I admit to not thinking much about its accuracy – until yesterday, when I came across this post on the NeuroLogica Blog.

Neurologist Steven Novella, MD, writes that he loved the movie and would highly recommend it, but “as a metaphor for brain function, the movie was highly problematic.” He outlines the various ways in which accuracy was sacrificed for plot, or for the sake of simple storytelling, starting with the control panel used in the “command center” of Riley’s brain. “There does not appear to be any equivalent of a command center or control panel in our brains. There is no ‘seat of consciousness’ or ‘global workspace,'” he writes. “Rather, consciousness appears to be highly distributed, with each part of the brain contributing its little bit.”

The entire post is an entertaining and educational read, and I know I’ll keep it in the back of my mind – no pun intended – upon my next viewing of the movie. (Anyone with kids knows there’s no way I’m getting away with seeing a Pixar movie only once.)

Previously: From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?, From phrenology to neuroimaging: New finding bolsters theory about how brain operates and Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?
Photo by geralt/Pixabay

Cancer, In the News, Media, Medicine and Society

Oncology hashtag project aims to improve accuracy of online communication about cancer

Oncology hashtag project aims to improve accuracy of online communication about cancer

6399145505_49e812a63d_zThere’s lots of talk about the need for doctors to communicate better with their patients, and social media is taking off as a medium for doing so. At this year’s meeting of the American Society for Clinical Oncology, which ends in Chicago today, Matthew Katz, MD, a radiation oncologist at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Center, exhibited a poster displaying a new series of hashtags for different types of cancer. There are at least 20: #leusm for leukemia, #melsm for melanoma, #blcsm for bladder cancer, etc. Patients and doctors alike can use them to be more accurate and specific in sharing information.

As reported in a MedCity News piece, Katz is a big believer in social media as a way for patients and doctors to communicate. He developed the hashtags to provide better access to reliable, high-quality health information for both patients and providers, and he’s quoted as saying:

Hashtags are a filter that can make it possible to make Twitter less noisy. Twitter has a lot of discussion of healthcare, but finding reliable information is not as easy… Patient-physician engagement is important, but the purpose is not to enhance therapeutic relationships. The disease-specific tags may be a way to adapt Twitter’s open platform to focus conversations and bring people together for education, advocacy and support.

Katz’s “cancer tag oncology” is based on research begun in 2013, which found that a wide variety of people did use the Twitter hashtags. Katz also founded Rad Nation, an online community of radiation oncologists.

Previously: Upset stomachs and hurting feet: A look at how people use Twitter for health information, Finding asthma outbreaks using Twitter: A look at how social media can improve disease detection, Advice for young doctors: Embrace Twitter, Twitter 101 for patients, and How using Twitter can benefit researchers
Photo by Michael Coghlan

Media, Medicine and Society, Technology

Upset stomachs and hurting feet: A look at how people use Twitter for health information

Upset stomachs and hurting feet: A look at how people use Twitter for health information

MedCity News ran an incredibly informative article earlier this week on how people use social media – and more specifically, Twitter – to consume and discuss health information. Reporting on a recent talk from Twitter engineer Craig Hashi at Cleveland Clinic’s ePatient Experience: Empathy + Innovation Summit, Neil Versel shared:

Some 40 percent of consumers believe that information they found on social media affects how they deal with their health, [Hashi] said. A quarter of Internet users with chronic illnesses look for people with similar health issues. And 42 percent search online for reviews of health products, treatments and providers.

Twitter processes 23,000 weekly tweets with the words “feet hurt,” and the frequency naturally increases as the day and the work week go on, though many people tweet that when they get home on Saturday night as well. “Dr. Scholl’s can actually come in and reach these people,” Hashi suggested.

“Allergy” tweets mostly occur between March and June, Hashi said. “Sunscreen” also peaks in the late spring and summer. “Uncomfortable tummies” is highest on Thanksgiving, with lesser spikes at Christmas and on Super Bowl Sunday. Hashi said that Tums advertised on Twitter around Thanksgiving.

And for those who question the value of Twitter, or don’t quite understand its place in health care, these figures might give you pause: “The volume of information available on Twitter is staggering, Hashi said. There are half a billion tweets send every day. There will be more words on Twitter in the next two years than in all books ever printed. An analysis Hashi put together found that there were 44 million cancer-related tweets in the 12 months ending in March 2015, and traffic spiked in October, which happens to be Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

Previously: Finding asthma outbreaks using Twitter: How social media can improve disease detectionAdvice for young doctors: Embrace TwitterTwitter 101 for patientsBertalan Meskó discusses how mobile technologies can improve the delivery of health care and What to think about when using social media for health information

In the News, Media, Science

Science enthusiasts flock to #IAmAScientistBecause and #BeyondMarieCurie on Twitter

Science enthusiasts flock to #IAmAScientistBecause and #BeyondMarieCurie on Twitter

iamascientistbecause tweet - smallRecently, a friend of mine commented that scientists “don’t use Twitter much.” The statement may have been true in the past, but as evidenced by #IAmAScientistBecause and #BeyondMarieCurie, scientists and science enthusiasts are now driving some trending topics on Twitter.

Yesterday, a story on Nature.com explained how these two popular hashtags have encouraged scientists to speak out. The first was created by the NatureCareers team in summer 2014, and the hashtag’s popularity suddenly increased earlier this week after Jon Tennant (@Protohedgehog), a graduate student studying paleontology at Imperial College London, shared the hashtag with his 6,000 some followers on Twitter. By Tuesday, the hashtag was trending on Twitter.

The resulting flood of tweets rallied scientists like epidemiologist Chelsea Polis, PhD, (@cbpolis) who told Nature.com she spent a day following the IAmAScientistBecause Twitter campaign online. “Despite all of the negatives, there’s so much that’s beautiful about science,” Polis said.

Meanwhile, a separate empowering conversation began when science editor Melissa Vaught (@biochembelle) tweeted about Rachel Swaby’s (@rachelswaby) Wired.com story on scientific achievements made by women. In her story, Swaby states that one woman tends to dominate conversations of female scientists and that we need to open our eyes to the many contributions other female scientists have made, and are making, to science:

Today if you ask someone to name a woman scientist, the first and only name they’ll offer is Marie Curie. It’s one of the biggest obstacles to better representation of women in science and technology, and it’s time to cut it out. Stop talking about Marie Curie; she wouldn’t have wanted things this way.

Vaught told Nature.com that she created #BeyondMarieCurie as a response to Swaby’s article because “we need diverse stories of women in science.”

As I scrolled through the hundreds of Tweets aggregated by the two hashtags one post in particular stood out. As shown above, chemist Carina Jensen, PhD, (@Chem_Monkey) tweeted, “IAmAScientistBecause a professor said women don’t do well in Chemistry. I proved him wrong.” For me, this unites the sentiments of the two hashtags beautifully.

Previously: The power of social media: How one man uses it to help amputees get prostheticsA day in the lab: Stanford scientists share their stories, what fuels their workChipping away at stereotypes about older women and science, one story at a timeWhat’s holding women in the sciences back? and Women in science: A rare breed

Addiction, Media, Medicine and Society, Mental Health, Technology

Patient tells how social media helped her overcome the “shame” of her eating disorder

Patient tells how social media helped her overcome the "shame" of her eating disorder

3375657138_d025fc4092_bMany of us turn to our friends and families for encouragement when times are tough. So it’s no wonder that social media sites have also become important sources of emotional support for people with illnesses.

Recently, a story over on MindBodyGreen highlighted how one woman used Facebook as a tool to help her overcome the shame and deception that hampered her recovery from her eating disorder. As Lindsey Hall explains:

Two months into rehab, I was still struggling with letting go of the games of my eating disorder. Transitioning from in-patient to out, I’d been rapidly finding myself falling backwards instead of forwards.

Here I was, 24 years old, still living some days bagel by bagel, still opening the door to deception, and guilt and shame. I knew on some level that admitting to my eating disorder on social media would be a way for me to stop the show. I knew I needed to own this struggle in order to own all of myself, and to continue on my journey learning the art of self-acceptance.

As Hall describes in the story, her decision to make her eating disorder public on Facebook was a leap of faith with no guarantee that it was the right thing to do:

I’ll never really know what drove me to write that Facebook status, but I posted it anyway to the open arms of nearly 2,500 “friends” and family, to people that had met me once at a bar or sat next to on a plane. Having lived so long behind a smoke screen, I was ready to expose myself. I needed to feel bare, even while broken, in order to be able to clean my slate, and start from scratch in reconstructing my life.

The feedback Hall received from her gutsy post on Facebook and the subsequent blog posts and stories about her eating disorder haven’t always been positive, but as Hall explains, that wasn’t that point. Hall’s eating disorder is public information now, and this new level of accountability has helped her keep her eating habits on track.

Previously: Incorporating the family in helping teens overcome eating disordersA growing consensus for revamping anorexia nervosa treatmentPossible predictors of longer-term recovery from eating disordersGrieving on Facebook: A personal story and How patients use social media to foster support systems, connect with physicians
Photo by .craig

Media, Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News

Anthropologist discusses Wikipedia’s implications for health information

Anthropologist discusses Wikipedia's implications for health information

pid_24010Many of us turn to Wikipedia for quick answers to medical questions: What’s an amniocentesis, or what’s the difference between autism and Asperger’s?

Stanford University Press recently published Common Knowledge: An Ethnography of Wikipedia by anthropologist Dariusz Jemielniak, PhD, who studies managerial culture and has long been active in the Wikipedia community. As a fellow anthropologist, I was curious about his perspective and I wondered how medical knowledge is different in the age of Wikipedia.

When I interviewed the personable Jemielniak, he offered some insightful answers to my questions:

How empowering is it for people to have knowledge at their fingertips, on the internet? How is this different from finding information in reference books?

The basic difference is that on Wikipedia it’s usually put in lay terms. It’s readable, it’s comprehensible… With information, people have the perception that they know something about their condition. I’m not sure if they’re right – obviously, knowledge is not just one tidbit of information. On Wikipedia you can’t learn the relations between all kinds of knowledge – you need to have a medical degree to really understand that – but patients feel they are operating in a situation of informational deficit… Information on Wikipedia probably makes people have this feeling of empowerment, though I’m not really certain whether in all cases this contributes to their overall health. Sometimes they’ll misunderstand, misconstrue, or misinterpret because they don’t have the systematic knowledge.

In your ethnography, you discuss how the decentralized power in Wikipedia’s management changes the knowledge structure away from institutions and certified expertise. Without an authority structure, how do you determine who’s an expert?

On Wikipedia, the point is you don’t have to know if someone is an expert… Trust is transferred from formal expertise to procedure. If you follow procedure to the letter, by default you’re producing proper knowledge. If you use correct sources, if you cite all the sources that you found, if you’re doing justice to whatever you read, by default on Wikipedia it’s assumed that you’re just as good as an expert.

What about biases? In the book you say biases usually get toned down through copious editing.

I think on Wikipedia there’s a strong scientific bias of a sort. If a community of people are contradicting what is considered to be the scientific knowledge, quite likely those activist groups will be ignored. If there is consensus in the academic world, this is what will prevail in Wikipedia.

You say Wikipedia is never “published” but in an ongoing process of creation. Is this better for updates about new research?

By all means, I think obviously. Thirty seconds after the new pope was elected this new information was on Wikipedia. On Britannica you’d probably have to wait one year. Traditional media takes a year to go through the publishing process. The continuous release mode that Wikipedia operates on allows for instantaneous improvements and corrections, which is wonderful, it’s really great.

The pope is one thing, but research? How often are pages on research updated?

One of the problems is that research on Wikipedia is accurate at time of writing the article, but gets obsolete if people do not update. Articles that are most updated are ones people care most about… The real question is how many people actually read the incorrect information? Chances are, if there’s a big proportion of people who care about a topic… the more likely it is to be updated.

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Addiction, Behavioral Science, Ethics, Events, In the News, Media

At Stanford visit, Glenn Beck addresses compassion, change and humility

At Stanford visit, Glenn Beck addresses compassion, change and humility

glennUntil this week, I wouldn’t have associated radio personality Glenn Beck with compassion. And when Jim Doty, MD, director of Stanford Medicine’s  Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education invited Beck to the Stanford campus, he realized the right-of-center author and provocateur might be a tough sell to his audience accustomed to guests such as the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

“Please trust me,” Doty tweeted last week.

Yet fireworks were absent from the nearly two-hour conversation, which ranged from Beck’s struggle with addiction to his Mormon faith and his passion for radio.

Beck came across as human, a man who had endured struggles, made mistakes and is striving to learn from them. He is a father and husband, who organizes charity efforts and volunteers in his church. He said he’s gone from a person for whom the audience size was just a measure of his success to a man who cares deeply about people and his audience members. He prays for humility and said he is not trying to be divisive.

“I spend a lot of time, at the end of my day, saying, ‘Okay, am I that guy? What could I have done better,'” Beck said. “You self-examine all the time and with that self-examination you grow. It’s good. I know who I am because I’m pushed up against the wall all the time.”

Americans share a certain set of principles in common, Beck said. The rift begins when people replace their principles with specific interests and policies.

“For example, if I said to you, ‘Do we torture?’,” Beck said. Nearly everyone would say no. But once threats from terrorists are introduced, the conversation becomes more divided.

“The left and the right have principles in common. We may disagree on interests, but we have to start anchoring ourselves in the principles.”

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Aging, Chronic Disease, In the News, Media, Neuroscience, Women's Health

Science Friday explores women’s heightened risk for Alzheimer’s

Science Friday explores women's heightened risk for Alzheimer's

More than two-thirds of the Americans living with Alzheimer’s are women — some like the character Alice in the movie “Still Alice,” who suffers from an early onset form of the disease.

Science Friday tackled that topic Friday, with guests Michael Greicius, MD, MPH, associate professor of neurology and director of the Stanford Center for Memory Disorders, and Roberta Diaz Brinton, PhD, professor of pharmacology at the University of Southern California. The two quickly disputed the belief that more women get Alzheimer’s disease because they live longer.

“The way women age puts them at risk,” Brinton said. As they transition through menopause, some women develop cognitive symptoms such as insomnia, depression and short-term memory loss, leaving them at greater risk for Alzheimer’s, she explained.

Women who have a form of a gene called APOE-e4 are particularly at risk, although it doesn’t seem to affect men, Greicius said. The gene interacts with estrogen.

Scientists are continuing to decipher the link between estrogen and Alzheimer’s and the possibility of hormone therapies, as well as the connection — if any — between pregnancy and Alzheimer’s risk, the scientists told listeners.

The 18-minute segment is available here.

Previously: Blocking a receptor on brain’s immune cells counters Alzheimer’s in mice, The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius, Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer’s risk for women but not for men and The toll of Alzheimer’s on caretakers

Stanford Medicine Resources: