A prescription for… art?

It’s safe to say that, when we think about personalized medicine, one of the last things that comes to mind is music. But, should it? These days, music streaming apps aren’t only organized by genre; you can easily find curated playlists that are designed to put you in a certain mood, or help you reach a goal (how about some “Cure those Monday morning blues” or “Songs to wake up happy,” anyone?). Many of us regularly use music as a tool to help us focus on the task at hand, or to pump ourselves up before a challenging workout.

Image courtesy of ShutterstockThere’s nothing particularly surprising about the fact that music affects how we feel. But, do we really understand what it does to our brains and bodies? The physiological and neurological effects of music are largely a mystery – one that Ketki Karanam, Head of Science at The Sync Project, is eager to solve. The Sync Project – whose Advisory board members include artists like Peter Gabriel, as well as neuroscientists and machine learning experts – is designing the first large scale data collection and machine learning models to understand these effects. It will identify how music’s structural properties – like beat and tempo – can affect our biometric rhythms, such as heart rate, sleep patterns, and brain activity.

The goal of the initiative? To identify potential music therapeutics that would serve as an alternative to drugs for health issues like insomnia, pain, and anxiety. Like Ketki, the relationship between music and medicine has also been a lifelong interest for Richard Kogan, who has led a distinguished career as both a psychiatrist and a concert pianist. A professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Richard has developed a series of renowned lecture-recitals, in which he examines the influence of psychological and psychiatric factors on the creative work of great composers, like Schumann, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. In part, Richard is motivated by a desire to destigmatize mental illness by highlighting savants with mental disorders, whose symptoms may have inspired their creative processes.

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Scarred for Life, Ted Meyer

For both Ketki and Richard, music and medicine are inseparable. But does the relationship between the two extend beyond music, to other forms of art? According to artist and curator Ted Meyer, it does. Having been diagnosed with Gaucher disease, a rare genetic illness, at age 6, Ted spent years in hospital rooms creating paintings that depicted the loneliness, fatigue, and pain he experienced. Decades later, after a new drug was discovered to treat those symptoms, the subject of Ted’s art has changed. Today, his 18 year old project, “Scarred for Life,” chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises. Using this mixture of personal stories and a love for art, Ted has set out to improve the doctor-patient relationship. As an Artist in Residence at the USC Keck School of Medicine, Ted curates patient-artists whose work ties to the medical curriculum; for example, an artist with asthma for a class on the respiratory system. Ted hopes to expand this program to other medical schools, with a goal of teaching future doctors to look at their patients beyond their diagnoses, and view them as complex, whole human beings.

We are delighted that Ketki, Richard, and Ted will each be speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage, where they will share their discoveries and unique insights about the relationship between art and medicine. We invite you to join us this November 30-December 2, in Palm Springs, CA, to learn more from them and other extraordinary speakers.

Balancing Medical & Musical Worlds: Q&A with Suzie Brown

In her TEDMED 2015 performance, cardiologist and singer-songwriter Suzie Brown and her husband, Scot Sax, give a vulnerable, evocative performance that tugs at our heartstrings. We caught up with Suzie to learn more about the delicate balance between pursuing her musical passions and practicing cardiology.

Credit: Zoey Sless Kitain

Credit: Zoey Sless Kitain

TEDMED: Can you tell us more about the fine line between exposing your outside life to your patients, being vulnerable with them, and maintaining the level of expertise, stoicism, competence, and objectivity that is expected when playing the role of a doctor?

SUZIE: It IS a fine line. When I am at the hospital, I am 100% dedicated to my patients and I would never want there to be any question about that. For that reason, I generally do not volunteer that I’m a musician, or even that I work part time. Once I have established a more long term relationship, and my commitment to them and competence as their physician has come across, I find it easier to talk about (but I still don’t bring it up). I hope that they feel it on some level though, in that I am more vulnerable and empathetic than I would be otherwise.

TEDMED: How do you balance the medical professional side and musical sides of your life?

SUZIE: It’s not easy. And it’s become even more complicated now that I have kids. My schedule currently alternates between 2 weeks working as a doctor and two weeks “off” from medicine, which is my time for music. After my two doctor weeks, I’m usually exhausted, and I’m always missing my family like crazy. I need to physically and mentally recharge before I’m able to be creative, which takes time. I can’t wait to spend time with my husband and daughters after being away so much at work. In between family and recharging time, I squeeze in my creative time. These days that mostly consists of songwriting with other artists in Nashville, though I still play shows and make albums. Inevitably, the two weeks “off” goes by in a flash. I often wish I had more music time, though I’m SO grateful for the time that I do have.

TEDMED: Do you think the fact that you’re a musician makes you a better doctor?

SUZIE: Definitely. Having time for music allows me to recharge, to replete my emotional reserve, so I have more to give to my patients. It also allows me to access my feelings and maintain a healthy amount of vulnerability – without time away, it’s easy to shut down emotionally, just to get by.


Download the song from Suzie’s TEDMED 2015 performance, “Sometimes Your Dreams Find You,” for free here!

New Genetic Spectra Across Earth’s Cities & Far Beyond

by Chris Mason, guest contributor

Since speaking at TEDMED 2015, there have been a number of updates to the science I described in my talk. These areas include: space genomics, beer-omics, extreme microbiomes, global city metagenome sampling, epitranscriptome discoveries in RNA viruses, and DNA as music in microgravity.

Image based on images courtesy of ShutterstockSpace Genomics and Genomic DJs

First, we have completed the first whole-genome sequencing profile of two astronauts’ genomes (the Kelly Twins). Also, in collaboration with our NASA collaborators, (Aaron Burton and Sarah Castro-Wallace) we have been sequencing DNA in microgravity; this will be used for 2016 plans to send an Oxford Nanopore Sequencer onto the International Space Station with astronaut Kate Rubin. We are preparing for the return of astronaut Scott Kelly to Earth next week, and are strategizing how to make genome-guided medicine a part of the standard of care for new astronauts. Our goal is to monitor, protect, and potentially repair astronauts’ biology through an integrated view of the layers of the genome, transcriptome, proteome, all the epi-omes, and the microbiome.

In collaboration with Harvard Medical School’s Consortium on Space Genetics, we’ve formally launched a new research focus for Weill Cornell medical students on the study of space genetics and aerospace medicine. This allows new medical students to learn and train in the methods of space genomics, data analysis, and new technology development for space missions. They’re also trained in synthetic biology, materials science, nanofabrication, microbiome engineering, and gene drives. These skills are taught in our class called “How to Grow Almost Anything (HTGAA) – NYC” that is part of the BioAcademany. Work by Elizabeth Hénaff in the 2015 class also helped with our plan for the Gowanus Canal and extreme microbiomes.

Extreme Microbiomes

Microbiomes can lead to a bounty of discovery for new biology, drugs and molecules. We have been systematically hunting for these microbes around the world as part of the eXtreme Microbiome Project (XMP). Among those sampled sites, we have already found that Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a SuperFund site, holds a suite of unique and potentially protective microbes, and we have been designing artificial sponges to hold these in the canal during the remediation process. This is part of a larger project of urban microbiome monitoring and design, called the Brooklyn Bioreactor, which is a collaboration between our laboratory at Weill Cornell, the landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz, the Gowanus Conservancy, and the community laboratory Genspace. Lastly, in collaboration with Shawn Levy at HudsonAlpha, we have started collecting data about beer microbiomes, which show an interesting blend of differences depending on the yeast strain used.

Global Metagenome Collection Day

The Metagenomics and MetaDesign of Subways and Urban Biomes Consortium has now reached 43 cities around the world, and a global City Sampling Day (CSD) event is planned for June 21, 2016, to match the collections of the global Ocean Sampling Day (OSD) group. These seasonal molecular snapshots will begin to expand our search for novel microbiomes, new molecules, will aid us in mapping the distribution of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) markers, and enable a better understanding of urban biology and ecosystems.

Epitranscriptome Discoveries and Sounds of RNA

Last but not least, we have just published the first demonstration of another realm of RNA modifications, collectively called the “epitranscriptome.” Specifically, we show that HIV’s RNA genomes also harbor modified RNA bases, and they impact how infectious the virus may be for a patient. We are now on a search across all RNA viruses to see how common these types of modifications are. We are also working to get direct RNA sequencing in nanopores operational, to enable listening to the “music” of the genome as it moves through the pore, as we demonstrated was possible with single enzymes in 2012. These methods and algorithms can help us discern new and peculiar nucleic acids that might be found not only in our lab, but in far-flung places on Earth and beyond.

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In his TEDMED 2015 talk, geneticist and urban metagenome researcher Chris Mason of Weill Cornell Medicine shares how he’s mapping his expertise into the distant future of outer space in the interest of humanity’s interplanetary survival.

Music Without Borders: Q&A with Farah Siraj

Farah Siraj, Jordanian singer and songwriter, has performed at the United Nations, Nobel Prize Hall, and World Economic Forum and had a #1 hit song in India. She shares her unique style of worldly music, a delightful Eastern and Western fusion.

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

It was a true pleasure performing at TEDMED. Also, the fact that we got to take the stage at the John F. Kennedy Center was a dream come true! Above all, what I love about TEDMED is that it is a platform for innovative, out-of-box thinkers to come together and share their ideas and discoveries with one another. It was definitely an eye-opening experience! TEDMED talks make you think twice about things!

What were a few TEDMED 2014 talks or performances left an impression on you?

One of the highlights of TEDMED for me was Diana Nyad’s talk. I find her fascinating— Diana is the perfect example of someone who didn’t give up on her dream, and how something can look impossible until you make it possible. There were so many odds against her each time she set out to sea, and yet that didn’t stop her. Diana’s talk was inspiring, charismatic and uplifting. When we met, I just had to give her a huge hug and tell her what an inspiration she is to me!
Dominick Farinacci’s performance was very inspiring. Music has profound healing powers and Dominick’s music is an example of that. Also, it’s great when an artist walks you through the story of their music, it gives you an understanding of where they were in their life when they wrote it. Great performance and great artist! We got to join our bands and create music on stage at the evening celebration, an experience I will always cherish.
I really enjoyed Rosie King’s talk. She talked about how autism is never a one-size-fits-all thing. It is a reminder of how far we still have to go in the field of understanding autism and providing the best support for autistic children and their families. Rosie was also an example of the brilliant intellectual abilities that often come with autism and are often overlooked. In the Middle East, autism awareness is finally taking off and my music was used in the first video campaign in Arabic to raise awareness about autism in the Arab world. It’s a cause I support wholeheartedly.

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

The fact that the majority of TEDMED attendees were in in the medical field led me to meet people so far out of my field. I loved it! I had lots of fun conversations with people and got to connect with some really inspiring people and make new friendships.

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

Farah Siraj at TEDMED 2014

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I believe I was given the gift of music so that I could use it for the greater good: to help and heal others through music, and to inspire people to make a positive change in their lives and the lives of others. My hope is that fulfilling that mission will be my legacy, as well as to be remembered as someone who helped amplify the voices of others who needed to be heard.

Music as Medicine: Q&A with Gypsy Sound Revolution

Gypsy Sound Revolution, led by drummer Cédric Leonardi and fellow Gipsy Kings alumni, mixes rumba with Indian raga. They play a unique fusion of Indo-Gypsy music that is both meditative and joyful. We followed up with them to learn more about their project.

"Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love." Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

“Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.” Gypsy Sound Revolution at TEDMED 2014.

 What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

As a performer, you want to reach as many people as possible with your art form. Music is increasingly accessible digitally and also thrives using many methods of delivery.
Somewhere along the way, it became a business. A big business. Performing at TEDMED was our way of delivering a message and access to the healing power of music. Music came out of the caves of India as medicine. Invoking the divine, but with a modern vernacular, we have seen lives transformed through the joy of our music. TEDMED was a potent forum to express this and continue the medicinal conversation globally, reaching as many people as possible.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

We hope our legacy shows the way for our children to live authentic lives, fully expressed and joyful using the path we have forged with our music. To touch the hearts of people and share the joy of living together on this planet. Music is borderless. It is the ultimate expression of love.

We cherish the poem, “What will matter,” by Michael Josephson, as a reminder of the fragility of life and the speed with which it passes:

Ready or not, some day it will all come to an end. There will be no more sunrises, no minutes, hours, or days. All the things you collected, whether treasured or forgotten, will pass to someone else.
Your wealth, fame, and temporal power will shrivel to irrelevance.
It will not matter what you owned or what you were owed.
Your grudges, resentments, frustrations, and jealousies will finally disappear.
So, too, your hopes, ambitions, plans, and to-do lists will expire.
The wins and losses that once seemed so important will fade away.
It won’t matter where you came from or what side of the tracks you lived on at the end.
It won’t matter whether you were beautiful or brilliant.
Even your gender and skin color will be irrelevant.
So what will matter? How will the value of your days be measured?
What will matter is not what you bought, but what you built; not what you got but what you gave.
What will matter is not your success, but your significance.
What will matter is not what you learned, but what you taught.
What will matter is every act of integrity, compassion, courage, or sacrifice that enriched, empowered, or encouraged others to emulate your example.
What will matter is not your competence, but your character.
What will matter is not how many people you knew, but how many will feel a lasting loss when you’re gone.
What will matter is not your memories, but the memories that live in those who loved you.
What will matter is how long you will be remembered, by whom, and for what.
Living a life that matters doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not a matter of circumstance, but of choice. Choose to live a life that matters.

What’s next for you?

Taking our music and message around the world in 2015. We are also finally going into the studio. We are very much a live band– we believe live interaction with people is the true purpose of music. However as TEDMED live-streaming proves, there are many more people that live streaming can reach in all kinds of obscure pockets of the world. The internet has brought us all closer so its time we stopped resisting and we have started to the process with the conundrum: how do you bottle magic? We will have at least three tracks recorded soon.

Any action items for viewers interested to get involved in the kind of work you do? How do they join the revolution?

We are starting a philanthropic initiative to support the communities of our Rajasthani musicians with a US based Indian company, HP Investments. The project will include music camps for children to keep the music traditions of this original gypsy tribe alive, as well as taking care of the necessities like water and power in their villages. Its a humbling and glorious experience working with musicians who go home to their villages without water and power after they have travelled the world with us. We are one– we have a responsibility to help each other beyond.

Paging Dr. Salsa: Q&A with Gerardo Contino

Gerardo Contino, “El Abogado de la Salsa,” and former lead singer of the Cuban mega-group NG La Banda, invigorated the TEDMED 2014 audience with timba — a progressive, raucous style of salsa, with his band, Los Habañeros. We caught up with him to learn about his vision and impressions of TEDMED 2014 speakers.

Gerado Contino TEDMED 2014
Gerardo Contino y Los Habañeros on the TEDMED 2014 stage. Photo: Robert Benson for TEDMED.

What motivated you to perform at TEDMED?

I’ve understood the power of music to heal ever since I was nine years old and sitting at the bedside of my sister, who was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer at the age of 14. I’d sing to her and we’d play her favorite music tapes while she was recovering from surgery or chemotherapy. Music was the one thing that could make her smile during that time. After moving to the United States from Cuba, I began volunteering with a non-profit organization, Musicians On Call, where I sang at the bedside of sick children in order to provide them with some relief and variety. I wanted to share this power of music to heal with the TEDMED community.

What are the top three TEDMED 2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you?

Elizabeth Holmes (CEO, Theranos): Loved this talk because I really felt that they are revolutionizing science and the ways in which all of us as patients, can have access to our health information. It also made me think how useful this technology would have been for my sister when she was undergoing chemotherapy, as the doctors had difficulties finding her veins after a while.

Diana Nyad: This talk stood out to me and was so inspiring. She demonstrated that anything is possible at any age and this was very inspiring to me as an artist. She really demonstrated the saying, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. And to top it all off, she was a great storyteller and really funny.

Tig Notaro: Tig’s talk really moved me. The fact that when she was at the height of her career, she was diagnosed with cancer and also underwent the personal dramas of losing her mother and breaking up with her partner, all in the span of a few months — that would take the life out of anyone. But instead, she turned it around and opened up to her audiences about what she was going through and used that as a form of not only coping with what was going on in her life, but also strengthening herself.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

A stronger community of Latino artists who are of Afro-Latin and indigenous backgrounds.

What’s next for you?

I’m releasing a new album in 2015 that includes a wider fusion of music, especially dedicated to mixing South American and Caribbean beats. I’m also developing a new project that will include an album and documentary about the various Afro roots of Latino music from African diaspora communities throughout the Americas. The album will feature fifteen songs from fifteen different communities throughout North, Central, and South America.