TEDMED Blog

Notably Ig Nobel: Science humor

Author and newspaper columnist Marc Abrahams is the editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. At TEDMED 2014 he shared laughter- and thought-provoking stories behind some of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which he founded and hosts. Almost all humor aside, Marc snuck away from his duties for a few moments to answer questions for us.

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014: Science Humor

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

People are sometimes given very serious advice about their health by Very Important People who know little and assume much. Look at the crazy advice that some politicians and some journalists are giving us — “Don’t vaccinate your kids!”, “Ebola was created by evil people who want to attack the American public!”. If someone — no matter who it is — tells you something that seems absurd, the best thing you can do is laugh, if it strikes you as funny… and then go find out the facts, and think about them. And THEN decide what you think about their advice.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

Three people each told me about scarily good candidates for future Ig Nobel Prizes. I probably would never have heard of any of those nominees if I hadn’t gone to TEDMED. (Sorry — I am not permitted to tell you anything about those nominees. We have rules, y’know.)

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope I helped at least a few people decide that it’s okay to make their own decisions — rather than simply accept what some authoritative person told them — about what’s good and what’s bad, and what’s important and what’s not.  

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

Well, of course I wanted to tell the story of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. But there wasn’t time. And anyway, Kees Moeliker, the scientist who made that discovery, is the best person to tell that story, which he did in an obscure biology journal, and then at the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and then again years later in a TED talk.

Can you share some highlights from the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony?

The on-stage demonstration of the technique that won this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for medicine. It was awarded to a team from the U.S. and India for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds using the method of nasal packing with strips of cured pork. Before that night, I had never in my life met anyone who had disguised himself as a polar bear to frighten a reindeer. I am very pleased with the premiere performance — as part of the ceremony  — of “What’s Eating You”, the mini-opera about a couple who decided to stop eating regular food, and instead get all their nutrients from pills. The lead singers were magnificent, and so was the chorus of their intestinal microbes.

What was your favorite winner from the 2014 Ig Nobel prize ceremony?

I am entranced by the Nutrition Prize winners — Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, who published a study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.” They could not travel to the ceremony, so instead sent us a mesmerizing half-minute-long video in which they explain what they did and why, and then eat some of the sausage. MA2

Claim your experience: Beyond the survivor identity

In her 2014 TEDMED talk, Debra Jarvis, a writer and former hospital chaplain, offered a witty and daring look at the way that survivors of disease and trauma can achieve new levels of emotional and psychological healing. We caught up with Debra in between her sabbatical adventures in Europe.

Debra Jarvis, Cancer Survivor

Debra Jarvis at TEDMED 2014, Photo: Sandy Huffaker

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

As a chaplain I always walk the line between science and spirituality. I knew that I had a unique perspective as a hospital chaplain, as a family member of someone with cancer and as a patient myself. So I had seen the issue of survivorship from all these different perspectives and knew TEDMED was a perfect venue to give a voice to the many patients who talked to me over the years. I spoke for a lot of people in that talk.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

This talk matters now because the pressure to be a “participating” survivor is high and although I think funding cancer research is important, taking on this identity can keep people stuck.  Although the context of my talk is specific — taking on “cancer survivor” as an identity — I hope  that listeners/viewers will realize that the problem is universal. Taking on any kind of “victim/survivor” identity is deadly. It can be cancer, it can be a car crash, it can be being dumped by a lover! My suggestion remains the same: Process your feelings, mine the experience for all it’s worth and then move on. Keep growing. Keep becoming.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

The best thing for me about TEDMED was being around so many people who are using their power for good. As Spiderman’s uncle said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” And so many of the speakers there were using their brains, education and energy to find solutions to some of the world’s thorniest problems. They are taking on great responsibilities, and that is inspiring.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

“Claim your experience. Don’t let it claim you.”

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?   

I wish I had time to talk about knowing the difference between being truly wounded and simply not getting what you want. The latter is your ego stamping its little foot and whining. I would have also loved to talk about what it would be like to not carry a wound, but instead carry a scar. A scar is so much stronger than the original tissue! And finally, I wish I could have included why I think we get so excited about surviving: It’s because we are so afraid of death. It’s like, “You’re a survivor!” but the unspoken thought is, “For now.” Because ultimately, no one survives. Americans in particular are loathe to face this. I would have loved to talk about teaching our children not to fear death and to give some great examples I’ve seen of how to do that.

The Power of Play

In her TEDMED 2014 talk, Jill Vialet, CEO of Playworks, an organization that creates imaginative, inclusive school recreation programs, challenges us to release our inner child and remember that play matters to physical and emotional growth. She spoke with us via email about her talk and how play changes the paradigm of health and education reform.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I was excited to have the chance to speak at TEDMED because it was a great opportunity – and a great audience – for drawing attention to our societal ambivalence around play, despite the overwhelming evidence that it contributes to our health and well-being. There is a narrative in American life about what it takes to change things, and a resistance to ideas that don’t fit in with this narrative. The idea that play might be a part of the solution to America’s educational challenges simply doesn’t align with most people’s assumptions.

_C0A7227But recess is a part of the school day where the best and the worst things happen. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge hiding in plain sight, and when you ask most educators about it, they admit to having given it very little thought. While it is the most concentrated time in the day for experiences of bullying, it’s also an unparalleled opportunity to promote physical activity, inclusion and empathy. Speaking at TEDMED was a great opportunity to raise awareness that play matters – and in a broader sense, that changing systems requires attention to how it feels to be part of that system.

 Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

This talk is important now because we are living in an age of health and education reform, and while the emphasis has been focused almost exclusively on what we do to rebuild these essential systems, too little attention has been paid to how we do it, and the importance of the environment in which the reforms take place. The demonstrable impacts of creating a more inclusive, playful environment, from helping kids feel safer to recovering instructional time, raise some important questions about what other undervalued and overlooked opportunities exist for building effective school environments and a culture of health.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

The legacy I hope to leave is a systemic awareness that play matters, reflected in thoughtful and explicit discussions around the importance of play any time we build institutions serving children and families. One of the most gratifying aspects of building Playworks over the past eighteen years has been in working with the young men and women – our coaches – who go out to schools to ensure that kids in our programs have access to safe, healthy play, every day. Through working with us, these coaches have discovered their own superpowers through the transformative experience of making a difference. My greatest hope is that these young leaders will take the experiences and skills they gained from working and playing with kids in schools, and apply them by being powerful changemakers for the rest of their lives.

An Extraordinary Out-of-Body Journey

In her TEDMED 2014 talk, photographer Kitra Cahana shared a new visual language accompanying the extraordinary story of her father’s severe brainstem stroke, a catastrophe that they transformed into an inspiring and imaginative spiritual journey. She spoke with us via email about her talk and her father’s progress.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

It’s very difficult to express the sublime and the surreal in words and photographs. I wanted to attempt to communicate all that my family had experienced in the summer of 2011 – my father’s brain stem stroke, and the profound spiritual awakening that followed – with others. When my father first had his stroke, I wrote down these words, and whispered them to him when I first came to his bedside: “We only ever needed one pair of hands, two legs, a respiratory system to keep the world afloat between us.” This became my mantra. We can sustain ourselves through each other. This is what my father taught us; he said that all who came into his room of healing should expect to be healed themselves. Healing has to be mutual.

Kitra Cahana at TEDMED 2014. Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

Kitra Cahana at TEDMED 2014. Photo: TEDMED

The stroke ruptured my reality as well as his. In those initial months, so devoted to his limp body and to allowing him to communicate all that was bursting to come out from within, I saw sides of myself I never knew existed. I would have loved for him to have spoken at TEDMED himself. But as in the hospital, where my mother, sisters, brother and I acted as his mouthpiece, so too do we continue to act in that capacity, sharing his words and his Torah with others.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

To me, this talk should be timeless. In fact, part of my father’s message is that he hopes others will step outside of the space-time hustle and bustle that many of us are so used to. He experiences life in a kind of slow-time (that’s what he’s called it), watching with curiosity as his body reawakens tingle by tingle, twitch by twitch. He spent and continues to spend hours alone with himself. That space of aloneness with his thoughts is not a place of anxiety, but a place of joy and introspection.

I hope that others get a sense of this slow-space-time, where you exist only with yourself, with those other humans that you are intimate with, and – my father would also say – with G-d. I tried to recreate this kind of in-betweenness (in between the inside and the outside, heaven and earth, body and mind) in the video series and photographs that I have been working on and that I presented in the TEDMED talk.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

I met a wonderful woman at TEDMED who runs a high-end rehabilitation center in Boca Raton, Dr. Lisa Corsa. Our chance encounter at the coat check turned into a half-hour consultation, wherein she reaffirmed our family’s sense of what intensive rehabilitation should look like. A body that has had every system affected as severely as my father’s needs hours of attention each day if there’s any intention for it to make functional progress. A body that doesn’t move hardens; it stiffens and withers away.

We have a wonderful circle of volunteers who give so much of themselves, but it’s not enough. Dr. Corsa helped me get a sense of how far we have to go to advocate and fundraise for my father to receive the minimum amount of proper care and attention. He’s currently living in an institution with limited human resources, and as a result we are only able to provide limited access to physiotherapists each week. She affirmed my resolve to fight for my father’s right to basic daily movement and to seek the funds for intensive physiotherapy, so that he can eventually move back home.

Please share anything else you wish you could have included in your talk.

Since my father’s stroke, I have become involved in a global community of people who have experienced brain stem strokes, either personally or on the part of a loved one. They are either still fully locked-in, or have since made great progress, including some partial to full recoveries. We share and compare our experiences online.

So many of those who have experienced being locked-in were written off too early. Their families were told to expect very little. As a result, they did not receive proper rehabilitation therapies, nor were their bodies moved on a daily basis to maintain a minimum quality of comfort and life. I’ve seen health care professionals refuse to address the locked-in patient directly, speaking about him or her in the third person, insensitive to the fact that the person is still completely conscious and able to communicate. We struggle every day to sensitize health care professionals and institutions.

Healing is taxing. But what is even more taxing is trying to heal in systems and institutions that drain the already low reserves of patients and their support systems. My father was able to have the spiritual experience that he had because he had a family and a congregation that preserved him in his role as father, husband and rabbi and advocated for him when he wasn’t able to.

Public Health’s Work on Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases—and the treatment of infectious diseases—has been a common theme in the news recently, with almost 4,000 people now dead from an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. It was only yesterday that Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, died in a Dallas, Texas, hospital.

Earlier this week, some of the leading experts in infectious disease came together in the Google Hangout “TEDMED Great Challenges: Track, Treat, Prevent—A Better Battle Against Communicable Diseases.” They discussed the risk of communication, treatment, drug resistance, disease tracking innovation and related ethical issues. The event was moderated by Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press.

The panelists—across the board—agreed that the recent Ebola resurgence has served to highlight the importance of public health. Not just what it brings to the table during such emergencies, but the need for it to focus even more on prevention efforts and ensuring public health is fully funded and supported.

“Public health funding is one of those things people only really notice when something goes wrong,” said Dara Lieberman, a Senior Government Relations Manager at Trust for America’s Health.

Amy L. Fairchild, PhD, MPH, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, believes that “in many ways, we’ve really lost our way in public health.”

“There was a period at the end of the 19th/beginning of the 20th century in which the field made these enormous strides in combating infectious diseases and combating communicable disease,” Fairchild said. “And then, with the rise of chronic diseases, we began to forget some of those…lessons learned about the need to focus on broad, sweeping environmental changes.”

Public health became focused on individual risk behaviors, she said, such as diet, exercise and smoking. The result was many in the field took their eyes off of the fundamental causes of disease.

“It’s not that those things aren’t important,” Fairchild said. “But the things that we’re going to be able to do as individuals are going to be far less consequential than what we can do from a more systematic perspective in public health.”

Ramanan Laxminarayan, a Research Scholar at the Princeton Environmental Institute at Princeton University, said the outbreak of something as serious as Ebola also serves to stress the importance of continuing to implement proven public health strategies, such as vaccinations for preventable disease.

“Even if disease burden is low, we need to keep the pressure on because it is that pressure that actually keeps infectious disease low,” said Laxminarayan. “If we stop vaccinating the world against measles today, for instance, it is very easy for measles to come back in a relatively susceptible population which is lacking immunity—and an explosive disease like that could kill millions.”

However, when it comes to diseases such as measles—which is one of many infectious diseases that have been declared eliminated in the United States—it can be difficult to communicate the need to continue receiving vaccinations.

“Prevention is going to be challenging because the consequences of prevention are not always obvious or apparent to folks who’ve never even seen that disease in their lifetimes,” said Laxminarayan.

Also, a considerable part of the role of public health professionals when responding to an infectious disease outbreak is managing the public’s reaction and understanding. Lieberman said that includes balancing the needs of those affected with the need to contain a situation.

“I think public health in general takes privacy and individual rights very seriously. At the same time, you just need to balance that with the practical need to protect the public from an infectious disease and from a highly dangerous disease,” said Lieberman. “So you can imagine if public health never knew who the individual was in Dallas, Texas. If that was just a privately treated person and public health didn’t get involved, then they wouldn’t have been able to investigate where he has been and who he’d had contact with. And it could have become a much wider spread outbreak (sic), so there is a need to weigh those two issues.”

When it comes to panic during an outbreak, Fairchild believes that it’s important to understand that panic can also bring about positive reactions.

“Panic is the language of action. When you hear panic in the air, you hear people talking about the need to take action,” said Fairchild. “And so it’s either a prompt to do something more—to beef up the infrastructure in West Africa, to beef up the response in the United States—or it’s a critique. It’s a critique we aren’t doing enough.”

One tactic that has been proven to be a boon for public health efforts has been the online tracking of people’s interest in, and concern over, different health issues. According to Christian Stefansen, a researcher at Google, today when a person is feeling “under the weather” their first action taken is often to log online, where they search for information about their symptoms. In 2008, Google launched Google Flu Trends, which continually looks at what people are searching for online and builds health model than can help public health experts get out in front of an issue.

Reprinted with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Public Health blog.

How sleep deep cleans your brain

Jeffrey Iliff at TEDMED 2014. Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

Jeffrey Iliff at TEDMED 2014. Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

 

In his TEDMED 2014 talk, neuroscientist Jeffrey Iliff illuminated a newly discovered, critical function of the brain during sleep: a natural cleansing system that keeps toxic proteins at bay.  We spoke to him via email about his talk.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

TEDMED offered the unique opportunity to tell the story of our research – not just its facts, but also its story. As a neuroscientist, I go to the lab every day expecting to see something new within the brain, its pieces, processes, and the systems that comprise it that no one has ever seen before. What we find within the brain – its simplicity, minimalism, functionality, and its beauty – are a continuous source of wonder to me. In the methods, results, and careful interpretation of our findings, this wonder can easily be distilled. When the outside world looks in at our work, they may only see cells, blood, water, and so many solutes; not the beauty I see through the eyepieces of a microscope. TEDMED gave me the chance to tell the story of our work as we experience it, as the story that it is.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

First, I think that it is a subject to which every person can relate. Each of us who is in school, works long hours at a job, or has kids to keep them up when they’re sick, deals with the inescapable fact that sleep is necessary for our brains to work correctly. Learning that parts of the way our brains work can make intuitive sense is comforting, and makes our brains seem a little less like these strange alien machines that no one can really understand.

I think that the research itself is timely, as well. An increasing number of clinical studies have begun to link such seemingly disparate processes as sleep, neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, brain injury and others. The science that we describe, and that is the subject of my talk, is fundamental to the basic function of the brain and may help to explain many of these puzzling associations. My hope is that my TEDMED talk will spur people’s imaginations and encourage them to dive headfirst into these questions and, in doing so, drive the field forward far beyond these small contributions that we’ve made.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

During the conference, I was approached by several people who were attending TEDMED for their own professional reasons, but who had also dealt – either personally or within their immediate families – with conditions that are likely impacted by the biology that we are studying. For those of us who are scientists, but not physicians, it is incredibly easy to view our work academically, to equate progress with papers and grants, and to view treatments as ideas and hypotheses to be tested. To an extent, this is completely appropriate. But, I was reminded that, when I talk about “Alzheimer’s patients” in a scientific talk, those words stand for millions of mothers and fathers, grandfathers and grandmothers who live with this disease every day – each loved and missed as they slip slowly away. In the face of this reality, the thin replies of “We don’t know yet,” “Here’s what we think is happening,” or “Here’s something we’re testing in our mice” seem hollow and inadequate. It was a stark reminder to focus not only on what, but also whom we are trying to cure with all of this amazing science.

A chorus of support for those struggling with mental illness

Entrepreneur Jen Hyatt, founder and CEO of Big White Wall, an online mental health support and treatment platform, talked to the TEDMED 2014 audience about how social networks can provide healing help to those who feel isolated in their struggles with mental illness. We spoke with her via email about her talk.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

TEDMED’s global reach presents an unparalleled opportunity to “converse with the world.” TEDMED’s ethos, the ability to share knowledge and offbeat thinking that creates surprising sparks between innovators and disruptors from across the globe, is very dear to my heart. Focusing on the people who are creating new, or even strange or unusual, speaks to the greatest challenges facing health care offers the opportunity for transforming moribund systems. Being part of that, sharing knowledge and ideas, was a real privilege. So my message, as part of that, is that the economic and human cost of poor mental health is tragic in proportion, yet has a digital and human sized solution.

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Jen Hyatt at TEDMED 2014 Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Conventional methods of addressing poor mental health cannot meet the volume of need. We see this crisis in provision – lack of treatment, barriers to access, high costs and the pain caused by a lack of support for mental health – across the whole world. In my TEDMED talk, I showed that the human need for connection and community is thousands of years old. Yet it’s only now, with the growth of digital technology and online social networks, that we have the potential to truly transform mental health care with the support of online communities and a broad choice of support and recovery tools, so no one has to struggle alone. We need to shift the healthcare journey from one where people are passive and isolated to one where they are active and supported.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

An emotionally literate world, in which there is no more mental health stigma, and no one left struggling without help. Every human being should have one-click access to support and recovery tools for improving how they are feeling, and I hope that will be Big White Wall (BWW)’s legacy, and mine. A world in which your emotion is known without needing to speak it provides support that is integral to our lives.

Please share anything else you wish you could have included in your talk.

I wish I could have shared the vibrant images that our community members use to show their journeys from darkness to light, from struggle to recovery, and all the moments in between. Big White Wall centers on a shared, anonymous digital social space, supported 24/7 by professional staff. This center draws much of its strength from the power of peers – not trained professionals, but people just like you and me. Not necessarily the people who see themselves as leaders or helpers, but the struggling, the lost, the unhappy and the confused. I wish I could have showed a bit of their struggle, their strength and the amazing support they offer.

Watch Jen Hyatt’s TEDMED 2014 talk here.

Track, Treat, Prevent: A Better Battle Against Communicable Diseases

A Live Online Event: Tuesday, October 7 @12pm ET/9am PT

shutterstock_171831098Join us for the continuation of the Great Challenges Google+ Live Online Event Series as we discuss “Making Prevention Popular” in the context of infectious diseases. We’ll have some of the nation’s leading experts on infectious disease to discuss risk communication, treatment, drug resistance, disease tracking innovation, and related ethical issues.

The diseases may change, but the news is the same: The medical community continues to work on the best ways to track a communicable illness, control exposure, treat as appropriate, communicate risk and inspire behavior change. Are there new and better ways to prevent the spread of communicable diseases? How can we strengthen understanding and partnerships around prevention, including larger roles for patients, individual providers and communities.

With dangerous, sometimes deadly viruses and infections – such as Ebola, enterovirus D68, and MRSA – making their way through populations, our fight against these diseases has also taken center stage politically. Just last month, President Obama signed an executive order to create a task force that will develop and implement a five-year plan to prevent and contain outbreaks of infections caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and to create new, more effective tests, antibiotics, and vaccines. What might such a plan look like, in five, ten or 50 years?

Click here to RSVP, and be sure to kick off the conversation today by tweeting your questions and comments and tagging them #GreatChallenges – we’ll address as many as we can on air. To learn more about the Great Challenges program, click here.

We’ll see you online!

A medical school in Cuba trains doctors to serve the world’s neediest

American journalist and Havana resident Gail Reed spoke at TEDMED 2014 about a Cuban medical school that trains doctors from low-income countries who pledge to serve communities like their own all over the world. She talked with TEDMED about the Latin American Medical School and its contributions to global health.

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope it will have?

Ridden by Ebola today, other emerging infections tomorrow, and always by chronic diseases—our world needs strong health systems, staffed by well-trained and dedicated people. And their education must be the result of enlightened decisions from policymakers who put health first, learning from the likes of the Latin American Medical School to make these new health professionals the rule, not the exception. Now is the time for medical educators to make the changes needed to give us the kind of physicians we need. And to bring the profession into the movement for universal health care, bringing doctors to the forefront with other health workers. To walk the walk.

Gail Reed at TEDMED 2014

Gail Reed at TEDMED 2014 Photo: TEDMED/Sandy Huffaker

I hope that people seeing the talk will be inspired to act to support the Latin American Medical School graduates through our organization, MEDICC. I hope policymakers will take the School’s courageous experiment to heart, and then take another look at their budgets and find more for health and medical school scholarships; and that governments will find a way to employ these new doctors in the public health sector, in places where they are most needed. I hope the graduates will never ever wonder about their importance to global health, for they and others like them are vital to turning around our global health crisis, in which one billion people still have no health care—millions, even, in the USA. And finally, I hope we will recognize Cuba’s contribution to global health, including the nearly 500 nurses and doctors on the front lines against Ebola in West Africa, as an example of what is possible and as a challenge to others to do more. Today, Cuba has over 50,000 health professionals serving in 66 countries, 65% of them women. Since 1963, 77,000 of them have given their services—and some their lives—in Africa.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

As a journalist in Cuba, I realized I was witnessing an extraordinary experiment in health solidarity with the world’s poorest people: The thousands of scholarships offered by Havana’s Latin American Medical School to students from low-income families in 123 countries, who pledge to serve in communities poor like their own. I was struck by the fact that a country, an institution, believed these young people could themselves be the answer to the call for doctors where there were none. And I was astounded, too, that this audacious experiment has remained essentially an untold story. Audacity is right at home on TEDMED’s stage, so it seemed the perfect opportunity. I also thought the TEDMED audience would ‘get it,’ the urgency and responsibility we all have to support these new doctors, who represent the potential of imagination when commitment drives it into bold action.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

The talk’s legacy is in the hands of thousands of young doctors continuing to graduate from the School in Havana, who are bringing health care to some of the world’s most vulnerable people. Their school and their example should remind us that this is one world, with one fate and one humanity, and that the odds are there to beat: Health for all is possible.  

Want to learn more about Gail and her efforts? Visit her speaker page on TEDMED.com.

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TEDMED Friday: Natural Inspirations, Surreal Designs

Art of Motion Dance Theatre performs at TEDMED 2014 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

Art of Motion Dance Theatre performs at TEDMED 2014 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

The third and final day at TEDMED 2014 touched on grand influences: The vast impact of our life events, lifestyles and external environment on our minds and bodies.

We’re all “swimming in an ocean of light” but, like fish in water, are generally unaware of and pay little attention to our environment, said Mariana Figueiro of the Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Yet light is the conductor of our internal symphony, influencing when we sleep and wake, our cognitive abilities, how well our medicine works, even how much we eat. Minding your light might include shutting out blue daylight with rose-colored glasses (literally) to ward off jet leg, and avoiding bright artificial light for a couple of hours before sleep.

Jeffrey Karp, co-director of the Center for Regenerative Therapeutics at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, has invented slug-inspired tissue glues, parasitic worm-inspired micro-needles, jellyfish-inspired cell-sorting chips, and a gecko-inspired medical tape. His advice to other medical technology designers who aspire to co-opt nature’s best designs? Take a trip to the zoo.

We know that our brain influences our actions, but science increasingly points to the crucial role our gut plays in our feelings. John Cryan, neurobiologist at University College Cork, explains how metabolic activity in our gut microbiota can play a role in how our brain functions, particularly in regulating emotions. Research has just begun into how administering helpful probiotics – called psychobiotics – may help improve mental health.

Robin Geunther, a sustainable healthcare architect, took hospitals to task for so often being environmentally unhealthy, both for humans and the environment, from sealed-shut windows and floors waxed with toxins to an outsized energy footprint. Even economic surroundings should be taken into account when building health, she said. “All too often hospitals don’t acknowledge that how and where they spend their money impacts community health, and their focus on saving money via global supply chains bankrupts local communities,” she said.

Physician, chef and TV personality John La Puma shared a recipe for health.

Physician, chef and TV personality John La Puma shared a recipe for health.

Among many other memorable moments: Marc Abrahams, founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, regaled the audience with stories of the “Weird and Wonderful” winners in the session of the same name. The criteria for winning: You’ve done something that make people laugh, then think. Among the laureates include a papers on “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts” in Papua, New Guinea and how to minimize colonic gas explosions during a colonoscopy; and a patent for a brassiere that could be converted to a face mask.

Exposure to this risk causes as much as a 20-year difference in life expectancy, but doctors are not trained to spot and treat it. What is it? Childhood trauma. Abuse, neglect or growing up with a parent who has mental illness can cause negative health outcomes that can stretch over a lifetime, including 3 ½ times the risk of heart disease, says pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of Center for Youth Wellness. Adverse childhood events literally change the structure of the brain, including fear response, and sends the body’s fight-or-flight response into overdrive. Screening is universal at the Pacific Center, and treatment includes home visits, care coordination, mental health care, nutrition and holistic interventions.

Resa Lewiss, Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine and Radiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, sees a future in which the powerful technology of ultrasound will be wireless, portable and relatively inexpensive. “Point of care ultrasound is one of the most disruptive innovations to hit healthcare in a long time, “ she says.

A fanciful prosthetic from Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s studio. Photo courtesy of the Alternative Limb Project.

Sophie de Oliveira Bariata stunned the audience with photos and an in-person model of her imaginative prosthetic art. From the minute details of realism, like the tiny hairs on a toe, to fanciful mini-murals, she creates limbs according to how clients perceive themselves and seek to move on all levels in the world. As one woman said of her ornately painted leg, “[It's not real], so why not make it surreal?”

For more on the speakers of TEDMED 2014, visit TEDMED’s Tumblr page.