September 16, 2014

TEDMED Day 3: The Nature of People, the Peculiar, and the Pint-Sized

Bob Carey knows that laughter is the best medicine.
I was sad on the last day because a.) it was the last day, and b.) it started an hour earlier than Day 1 and by this point I was exhausted. (Exhaustion is the curse of the introvert who tries to put oneself out of their comfort zone by surrounding oneself with a thousand strangers for 10 hours a day). But as you can see from the picture on the right, it's clear that my spirits were lifted by midday.

Session 7: "Human Nature Inside and Out." This was a very diverse session addressing not just how can improve upon patient care by understanding human nature, but also how we can turn around our natural tendencies in the face of adversity.

The session opened with Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency, which advises businesses on how to design their buildings with sound in mind. Treasure gave some upsetting statistics: hospital noise has doubled in magnitude in the past 40 years; it's 12X louder during the day and 8X louder at night than recommended by the World Health Organization; and loudness is the #1 complaint of hospital patients in 2013. Treasure suggests hiring acoustic engineers, employing vibrating pagers and silent trolleys and footwear, and masking sound with white noise or music. Next, architect and scientist Mariana Figueiro spoke of the range of afflictions to which we're vulnerable when we don't get appropriate amounts of (blue!) light during the right time of day. Jeff Karp then spoke about his brilliant "bioinspired" technology, including how imitating spider webs improved adhesive tape for premature babies and how barbs, like on porcupine quills, are much better for the skin than tradition staples. Next, anesthesiologist Emery Brown gave us a primer on general anesthesia (which is not sleep!). It's actually, he says, a "drug-induced reversible coma," and different anesthetics have different signature EEG patterns. Neurosurgeon and researcher Uzma Samadani then spoke about her company Oculogica, which creates eye-tracking diagnostic technology to detect concussions and other brain injuries that do not show up on imaging. Finally, Debra Jarvis, the "irreverent reverend," spoke on the importance of finding meaning from crappy situations. She told us about a man with cancer who would go for his chemotherapy treatments alone. When Jarvis asked why he didn't bring anyone, he said he didn't have any friends. Once cancer-free, he vowed to find the meaning of friendship; when Jarvis attended his Christmas Eve party later that year, his house was packed to the brim.

September 14, 2014

TEDMED Day 2: Hijacking, Keeping Mum, and the Importance of R&R

I was particularly excited about Day 2. Not only did this day include some of the speakers that I was most looking forward to, but the session topics were relevant, I found, to both medical practice and the scientific method.

Progress on Andrew Rae's mural by Day 2.
Session 4: "Stealing Smart." This session described how one biological system can hijack another to assert its effects—and how we humans can take advantage of that for our own needs.

The session opened with cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, who observed that vets were often treating animals with similar afflictions as humans—even mental illness. Natterson-Horowitz argues that studying behaviors and conditions like self-harm, infant neglect, and stress-induced heart failure in animals can improve our treatments in humans. Next up, economist Ramanan Laxminarayan discussed the worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance. Like the "drill, baby, drill mentality," we find alternatives when other antibiotics stop working; Laxminarayan proposes solutions comparable like emissions taxes and green energy subsidies. Drew Lakatos took the stage next, citing that 1/4th of people over age 65 who break their hip die within the next year. Lakatos created ActiveProtect, a sensor technology one wears around the pelvis and deploys like an airbag when it detects atypical human motion. We were then treated to the soulful sounds of jazz trumpeter Dominick Farinacci, who, in addition to his musical skill, shared stories of his mother's cancer treatment and playing for hospice patients. Neuroscientist Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, spoke next, discussing her work on depletion of the dopamine D2 receptor in both drug addiction and obesity. Like "driving without brakes," she says, these conditions are not simply problems of self-control, as this dismisses the idea that a region of the brain is chronically malfunctioning. Last up, journalist Leslie Morgan Steiner told the story of Rhonda and Gerry, an infertile couple who chose surrogacy in India, which was 1/10th of the cost that it would have been in the U.S. Despite being so stigmatized here—by conservatives and feminists alike—the business is thriving abroad thanks to "medical tourism." We were lucky to be introduced to Rhonda, Gerry, and their three little miracles onstage.

September 12, 2014

TEDMED Day 1: Uncertainty, Amazingness, and Upside-Down-ness

TEDMED curator Jay Walker interviews NIH Director Francis Collins (L).
TEDMED D.C. kicked off wordlessly on Wednesday with skilled acrobatics by a pair from the Art of Motion Dance Theater hailing from New York, followed by a soulful performance by Jordanian singer Farah Siraj, who led us on an international musical journey with her talented back-up band.

Session 1: "Turn it Upside Down." This session had us re-thinking what we currently know (or thought we knew) about current medical dogma and approaches to healthcare.

The session opened with science journalist Sonia Shah challenging us to re-think our current paradigms of disease origin and treatment. Did you know that opossums can destroy up to 6,000 ticks per week simply through grooming? Yet our desire to rid of these pests may be hindering our ability to control Lyme disease. This was just one of many examples given. Next up, Eleanor Bimla-Schwarz from U.C. Davis discussed a hidden risk for heart disease: not breastfeeding your child in the weeks and months after giving birth. Sure, doctors can prescribe the usual regimen to prevent or treat heart disease: clean up your diet and exercise more. But without this key preventative, Bimla-Schwarz says that there are an additional 14,000 heart attacks, 54,000 medications prescribed, and billions of dollars spent needlessly every year. Actor and playwright Heather Raffo took to the stage next as "Somora," a 9-year-old Iraqi girl detailing her feelings of oppression during war and misunderstandings with her family. Doctor Danielle Ofri from Bellevue Hospital spoke next, revealing a medical error that she kept secret for 25 years: she missed an intracranial bleed in a patient (that, luckily, a resident caught). The current culture has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to medical error, but Ofri argues that we should speak openly about and accept these errors as part of human nature. Finally, Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard and director of the Program in Placebo Studies described noticing, strangely, how patients' mobility seemed to return once he wrote them a prescription. In a series of experiments, he detailed how placebos can, in some cases, be just as effective as a drug for subjective alleviation of symptoms.

September 11, 2014

Reflections on TEDMED D.C., 2014: The Big Picture

There's a BLOGGING LOUNGE! So obviously I'm here.
Greetings from TEDMED 2014! I type this at The Hive surrounded by the hub-bub, brilliant minds, and countless coffee stations that could only power an event this stimulating. I'm currently eating a Kind bar, chillin' in the Blogging Lounge (yeah, that's a thing here), and keeping an ear open for when I'll be called to get lunch at an event they call TableTalk. There's also a nap station which, as a sleep scientist, I wholeheartedly endorse.

We're here at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and today, this 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, is particularly humbling for me for many reasons. My wonderful college friend (and wedding officiant) Jessie has agreed to put up with me for a few days at her house. I'm waking up before the sun to experience the bustle and confusion that is a weekday morning on the D.C. Metro.

And I'm only here in the first place thanks to the generous support of TEDMED's Global Partners and Patrons, as I've received a full Front Line Scholarship to be here. There's no way I would have been able to afford TEDMED otherwise, and I thank them graciously for their financial support.

We're streaming live in over 140 countries, with 7,000 affiliates and 200,000 watching at home. For the first time, TEDMED is also being held across the country at The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and occasionally we'll check in with them to get a glimpse of what they're up to or watch some of their speakers. But I can attest that being at TEDMED is a much different experience than watching a TED talk while lounging in bed with an iPad. The talks are only a small percentage of the day's events; there are plenty of opportunities for networking, meeting the speakers, checking out new start-ups, connecting with extremely diverse folks from all over the world, and good food. Really good food.

In a parallel post, I'll give a snapshot of each talk we've seen here, giving a particular focus to speakers that had the biggest impression on me. Regardless of the breadth of attendees' ("Delegates") careers here (doctors, scientists, students, health consultants, CEOs of biotech companies, and everyone in between), each speaker's message is relevant to everybody in some way.

I can only do so much in a blog post, but please don't hesitate to contact me through e-mail or Twitter if you'd like to hear a more informal account about my experience here at TEDMED. The theme of TEDMED this year is "Unlocking Imagination," and the fact that I'm even here at all is beyond my wildest imagination.

Click below for a few more pictures from my first day at TEDMED:

September 5, 2014

Why Does Hershey’s New Logo Look Like the Poo Emoji? Neuroscience Explains.

I live in the city of Hershey, the "Sweetest Place on Earth." I’m surrounded by references to chocolate everyday—from the smell of it in the air to Kiss-shaped streetlamps to chocolate-brown paved roads. It’s a pretty sweet life.

The Hershey Co.
So when The Hershey Company unveiled their new logo (above) last Thursday, I didn’t find anything unusual about it.

That is, of course, until the Internet began comparing it to the poo emoji, popularized by Apple.  Even after seeing the comparison, I still didn’t know what the big stink was about, so to speak.

Why did some people immediately see a big, steaming turd when, obviously, it’s supposed to be a drop of chocolate topped with the iconic Kiss flag? Actually, understanding the cognitive processes behind visual recognition can explain everything from Hershey Kiss poop emojis to why we perceive animals in clouds and Mother Mary’s face in a piece of toast.