Unlocking the Diseases of the Brain

Guest blog by Carl Sherman

One evening last week, I met the mini-brain.

I was introduced to this intriguing concept by three scientists who know it intimately, at a presentation on “Unlocking Diseases of the Brain with Stem Cells,” at the headquarters of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).

Melissa J. Nirenberg, M.D., Ph.D., NYSCF’s chief medical officer, introduced the subject from the perspective of a neurologist with 20 years’ experience, primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

“It was frustrating,” she said. While treatment can attenuate some symptoms for some patients, “we don’t have anything to offer them to halt or even slow disease progression.” The same goes for Alzheimer’s. “That’s why I’m here. At NYSCF, we’re focusing on treating the underlying disorders.”

Science Laboratory

Image: Shutterstock

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Developing Brains at High Risk from Early Alcohol Use

Guest blog by Brenda Patoine

Underage drinking is a significant public health problem in the United States. While rates of underage drinking have declined steadily in the past decade or so, the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that among US youth 12 to 20 years old surveyed about their alcohol use in the past 30 days, 20% reported drinking alcohol and 13% reported binge drinking. Adolescents account for approximately 11 percent of total alcohol consumption in the U.S., according to a CDC fact sheet on underage drinking.

Because the teenage brain is at a highly vulnerable stage of development, early drinking may set the stage for later alcohol abuse.  The frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around age 25, and emerging data suggest that this executive area of the brain is particularly susceptible to damage from alcohol use during adolescence.

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Memoir by John Saunders Sheds Light on Depression

There are many sad elements of John Saunders’ autobiography, Playing Hurt, from the author’s troubled childhood to his traumatic brain injury to his persistent depression. Most heartbreaking, though, is that Saunders died before the book was published, denying him the chance to witness its impact. Readers who know nothing about the sports broadcaster’s career nor have any close ties to mental illness will find the book well-written and engaging. Those directly affected by depression could find it life-changing.

 

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Saunders died unexpectedly before his book was released to the public. He’d hoped it would help people affected by mental illness.
Photo credit: De Capo Press

In the introduction to Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, Saunders writes that he wanted “to reach out to the millions of people, especially men, who think they’re alone and can’t ask for help.” As a black man and a former athlete, Saunders, who appeared on ESPN and ABC in various roles from 1986 until his death in August of 2016, was a member of several cohorts often hesitant to admit mental health problems.

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Free Public Event: The Aging Brain

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Image: Shutterstock

What does every congressional district have in common? Baby Boomers – the sizable generation of people now in their 50s to 70s. It is well documented that the collective aging of the Boomers will have public health impacts. This includes the impacts of the aging brain. Come and learn what happens to the brain as we get older, what happens when the process goes wrong, and what we can do to strengthen the brain as we age.

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Changing the World with Smartphones

“We are wildly ambitious,” Tom Insel, M.D., says when asked about his plans for Verily Life Sciences, a research organization parented by Google. After 13 years, Insel rocked the world of brain science when he announced plans to step down as director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in late 2015. His departure from NIMH, however, wasn’t a leave from neuroscience research or public health; it was a progressive step towards advancing the technologies that are predicted to transform mental health care.

Recently, Insel was profiled in the July/August 2017 issue of The Atlantic, which offers a thorough look at the trajectory that took him from lead role at the world’s largest mental health research institution to complete submersion in the energetic tech bubble of Silicon Valley.

The article recounts Insel’s early work in behavioral research, as well as his influence on the field of antidepressants and NIMH’s involvement in clinical drug trials. Presented with an opportunity to direct a new mental health team under Google, he could now focus on taking applied research and use it to help millions of people globally, who are in need of mental health care. “At any given moment, roughly one in seven of the world’s 7.5 billion people is struggling with mental illness. ‘We’re not going to reach all those people by hiring more psychiatrists,’ says Insel. But we might reach them with smartphones.”

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