Living with Parkinson’s

Alan Alda at Columbia cropped

Best known for M*A*S*H*, Alan Alda has also appeared in 48 films, on Broadway, and written two books. Photo credit: Eileen Barroso, Columbia University

It was hard to miss Alan Alda’s announcement this week on CBS This Morning that the legendary actor had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease more than three years ago. Alda, 82, said one of the reasons he was speaking out was to offer a message of hope to people who are living with the disease: “In the very beginning, to be immobilized by fear and think the worst thing has happened to you – it hasn’t happened to you. You still have things you can do. I’m taking boxing lessons three times a week. I do singles tennis a couple of times a week. I march to Sousa music because marching to music is good for Parkinson’s.”

Through the years, our Dana Foundation publications have often focused on both Parkinson’s disease and Alda’s passion to better communicate science to the public, which is part of our mission as well.

In 2015, about the same time that Alda learned he had Parkinson’s, I wrote “Alda Crushes It,” a blog on Alda’s lecture at Columbia University, entitled “Getting Behind a Blind Date with Science.” In this captivating lecture, co-sponsored by Dana and the Kavli Foundation, he talked about why he had co-founded his own center for science communication at Stony Brook University and how he had been inspired by his time as host of Scientific American Frontiers, a PBS program that explored any number of topics. He was engaging, insightful, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

A year later the publication I edit, Cerebrum, reviewed Alda’s new book If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face. We asked Eric Chudler, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and the executive director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering in Seattle, to tell us what he thought. Chudler wrote: “With humor and a clear, concise, and never stilted writing style, Alda takes readers on his journey to help experts convey neuroscience and other complex scientific topics to a variety of audiences.”

Last year Cerebrum published “Gut Feelings on Parkinson’s and Depression,”  an article by Ted Dinan and John Cryan, researchers at the University of Cork in Ireland,  that focused on microbiota’s emerging role in trying to solve the puzzle that could lead to treatment. We also published “A Smell Test for Parkinson’s,” an article about the growing role of olfactory in diagnosing the disease.

Alda told CBS that one of the reasons he decided to reveal that he was living with Parkinson’s was that he had been on television a lot in the last few weeks talking about Clear + Vivid, his new podcast. He noticed watching himself that his thumb was twitching and felt that “it’s probably only a matter of time before somebody does a story about this from a sad point of view, but that’s not where I am.”

All of us at the Dana Foundation are rooting hard for Alda—and know that he will continue to serve as a role model to others with Parkinson’s or any other potentially debilitating neurological disorder.

— Bill Glovin

Gladwell Podcasts Examine Brain Issues

Dana_podcastIMAGE_finalAs neuroscience enthusiasts already know, there are countless podcasts out there about brain-related topics. To inform my Cerebrum podcasts, I’ve sampled many of them to pick up tips on how to explain research that can often be complex and difficult to understand.

One such podcast that does a masterful job of explaining both chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and false memory is Revisionist History, a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, a former New Yorker staff writer and the author of Tipping Point, Blink, and other New York Times best seller nonfiction works. The podcast labels itself as a “journey through the overlooked and misunderstood.”

The CTE episode, entitled “Burden of Proof,” focuses on Owen Thomas, a captain of the University of Pennsylvania football team who committed suicide several years ago. Gladwell builds the episode from a talk on the topic of “proof” that he gave to students at Penn in 2013. He used CTE, a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries, to make his point.

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Richard Morris on The Life Scientific

“Suppose you were to go back to the place where you lived as a child,” neuroscientist Richard Morris prompts, “You could probably go back to the exact spot where the house was, but it may have changed dramatically…It may be a whole different kind of neighborhood. But you would know that was the place where you had grown up.”

So what happens in our brains to give us this innate sense of place? Morris has devoted the last 50 years to researching and understanding the mechanisms in our brain that power this “internal GPS” and offered some insight on Tuesday’s episode of BBC Radio’s “The Life Scientific.” His work focuses on how brain connections change, strengthen, and weaken in response to patterns of activity that correspond to everyday life experiences.

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New Cerebrum Podcast: The Human Connectome Project

In our September Cerebrum article, “The Human Connectome Project: Progress and Prospects,” David Van Essen, Ph.D., and Matthew Glasser, Ph.D., write about an ambitious six-year collaboration between neuroscientists at various institutions to map the brain with the help of 1,200 volunteers and ever evolving magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology. In this new podcast, the pair discuss their role, some of the unexpected surprises, and what they hope to discover in the project’s next phase.

Dana Launches New Cerebrum Podcast

E-May-Epilepsy

For almost a year, we’ve featured the authors of our monthly Cerebrum articles in a Q & A. With the May Cerebrum article, “A New Approach for Epilepsy,” we are transitioning to a podcast.

Why are we taking this new approach? We suspect that visitors to the website, with already quite a bit to read, will welcome an audio option. We also think it will be valuable to hear some of the top researchers in the field offer their opinions and explain some of the complex biological, neurochemical, or genetic advances that they write about in Cerebrum, the Dana Foundation’s research-based publication.

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