The Rewards of Risk-Taking: Q&A with Kayt Sukel

On the TEDMED 2014 stage, Kayt Sukel, journalist and science writer, shared insights into the neuroscience of risk-taking and how play during childhood and adulthood impacts the way we make decisions as adults. We inquired for more on brains at play and her favorite TEDMED 2014 talks.

"Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health." Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014

“Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.” Kayt Sukel at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I’ve found so much inspiration in many TEDMED talks—and learned quite a bit. As I’ve been working on my book about the science of risk-taking, there were so many things I learned that I wanted to share. I’m honored I got the opportunity to do so on the TEDMED platform.

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

More and more, Americans seem to live in a culture of cultivated busy-ness. We have so much to do that we forget to take time for ourselves. And while we understand that our kids need to play (and take risks as they do so) in order to learn and grow—many of us have forgotten how to play for ourselves. Too often, we wrap ourselves up in our grown-up suits and avoid play at all costs. And that’s to our detriment—at work, at home and for our overall health.

I hope that people will recognize that there is great value in play—not just for children but also for adults– and that they understand that taking risks in playful arenas is a great way to gain critical problem solving, cognitive and emotional regulation skills. I want them to understand that the things we do each day to cultivate health don’t have to be joyless and staid. So if the people who listen to my talk find some time to engage in some kind of play, push the envelope a little, and reap all those beautiful brain benefits, I’ll feel like I’ve done something important.

How can we incorporate play and risk-taking into our daily lives?

I encourage everyone to find something that motivates you—whether it’s learning a new language, taking an improv class or rock climbing. Then, push your limits. You’ll be surprised where risky play can take you.

Tell us about your favorite TEDMED 2014 talks or performances that left an impression with you.

I found the whole program to be tremendously inspiring. But that said, if I have to play favorites, I was bowled over by Jeff Karp’s talk on bio-inspiration. His work on finding inspiration in the natural world and then bioengineering it for modern-day use just blew me away. I would never have thought about translating the properties of porcupine quills into state-of-the-art surgical staples– nor would I have agreed to put said quills into my face as a test–but Jeff did! —and it was a pleasure to learn more about his research and the way he thinks about problem-solving.

Jeff Iliff’s talk on sleep and the glymphatic system was fascinating. I remember one of my own neuroscience professors discussing the mysteries of how the brain clears out its waste almost 20 years ago. It’s such a big question—and one that has implications for neurodegenerative disease. I love that technology has advanced to the point where researchers like Jeff and his colleagues are beginning to figure it out. Also, he reminded me that I really need to make sure I get my beauty rest!

And, finally, I enjoyed Sophie de Oliveira Barata’s talk on the Alternative Limb Project. In a former life, I was the wife of a military officer during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In that role, I met far too many soldiers who lost limbs. While prosthetic technologies are wonderful, many artificial limbs can feel a bit blank and soulless. Her creations moved me. And they show that we can embrace our differences, even those that we did not choose for ourselves, and allow them to be just another canvas to show the world who we are inside.

But I feel like I’m leaving out other great talks and performances—like those by Leana Wen, John Cryan, Carl Hart, Danielle Ofri, Marc Abrahams, Sonia Shah, Cole Galloway, Heather Raffo and Farah Siraj. Really, I could go on and on.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

Our family motto is “experiences over possessions.” I hope that, over the course of my career, I’ll inspire people to explore, to connect, to laugh and to live as fully as they can. And that, of course, requires being open to both playing and taking risks.

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing up my forthcoming book about the science of risk-taking, The
Art of Risk: The New Science of Courage, Caution, and Chance. It hits
shelves March 2016.

Making New Waves in Anesthesia: Q&A with Emery Brown

Emery Brown, anesthesiologist, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, and Co-Director of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, unveiled the surprising truth about exactly what happens to your brain under anesthesia and what it suggests for understanding the brain and improving treatment.

"Anesthesia works primarily through the production of oscillations that disrupt the way regions in the brain communicate." Emery Brown at TEDMED 2014

“Anesthesia works primarily through the production of oscillations that disrupt the way regions in the brain communicate.” Emery Brown at TEDMED 2014

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

When I had the honor to be invited, I realized that it would be a great opportunity to educate the public on general anesthesia and other practices in anesthesiology. The state of general anesthesia is viewed as a blackbox process by the field of anesthesiology, other fields of medicine and the general public. I was motivated by the importance of bringing an informed, modern perspective on general anesthesia to the lay public, the medical field, neuroscientists and anesthesiologists.

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

General anesthesia is viewed as a mystery both within as well as outside of medicine. After nearly 170 years of administering anesthesia in the United States, how anesthesia works is still considered as unknown and by some as unknowable. My research can change this because we can teach medical and lay communities that anesthesia works primarily through the production of oscillations that disrupt the way regions in the brain communicate. This disruption of communication is how the drugs make patients unconscious. These oscillations are readily visible in the EEG patterns of patients under general anesthesia. Different anesthetic drugs produce different patterns. The EEG patterns differ because different anesthetics bind to different targets in the brain and therefore produce oscillations in different circuits. All of these patterns are much larger and highly organized than the awake EEG or the EEG of people who are asleep. Therefore, anesthesia caregivers can learn to read these patterns and know whether a patient is appropriately unconscious to undergo surgery. Reading the EEG to monitor the brain states of patients under general anesthesia can be used to eliminate the frightening problem of awareness (waking up paralyzed). Dosing of anesthetic drugs can be more carefully titrated and the incidence of postoperative cognitive dysfunction and delirium will likely be reduced.

General anesthesia is a profound drug-induced reversible coma. A patient has to be in a state of coma, i.e. being completely insensate and unaware, in order to tolerate the traumatic insults required to execute most surgical procedures. Sleep is a natural state of reduced brain inactivation that is necessary for maintaining normal health. Sleep is defined by two primary states; non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. The brain switches approximately every 90 minutes between the non-REM and REM states during natural sleep. The EEG under sleep and a person’s behavioral state (being readily arousable) show that general anesthesia is not sleep.
I hope my talk can provide an accessible forum for the lay public to understand, 1) how general anesthesia works, and 2) that this process which is used every day in millions of people around the world should no longer be viewed as a mystery.

Beyond the need to have general anesthesia for surgery and certain diagnostic procedures, the study of general anesthesia from a neuroscience perspective provides an essentially unexplored way to learn about the brain. This study may also lead to new therapies for treating depression, sleep disorders, pain and facilitating the recovery of patients from coma.

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope to have taught the public how general anesthesia works and made it possible for the public to understand that anesthesia is not a mystery. I used this knowledge to improve anesthesia care for the thousands of people in the US and the millions of people worldwide who daily receive general anesthesia and sedation to safely and humanely undergo invasive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.

What’s next for you?

My next step is to change practice and research in anesthesiology. I will be setting up my Center for the Neuroscience Study of Anesthesia at Massachusetts General Hospital, where we’ll work to gain deeper insights into the altered states of arousal created by anesthetics; develop new neurophysiologically based EEG strategies for monitoring the state of the brain under general anesthesia and sedation; teach anesthesiologists and other anesthesia caregivers how to read the EEG in order to understand the brain states of patients receiving general anesthesia and sedation; develop new ways to precisely control the state of general anesthesia and sedation; study ways to rapidly bring patients out of the state of general anesthesia; create all new approaches to producing general anesthesia and sedation that are side effect free, particularly for children and the elderly; educate the medical professional and the public about how general anesthesia works; show that general anesthesia, when viewed from a neuroscience perspective, offers a new and virtually untapped way to learn about the brain; use knowledge gained from studying the brain under general anesthesia to devise new strategies to treating depression, new approaches to producing sleep, treating pain, epilepsy, autism and facilitating recovery from coma.

Any action items you want the viewer of your video to take?

I would appreciate knowing what viewers think about the work. It’s important for everyone to encourage greater funding for study of the neuroscience of anesthesia by federal and private funding agencies. The benefits will go well beyond simply anesthesia care. I also think that it is important that the public encourage the anesthesiology community to put in place guidelines and strategies to use the EEG to monitor the brain states of patients receiving anesthesia care.

 

Now is the time to face the truth about drug use – Q&A with Carl Hart

In his TEDMED talk, Carl Hart offered a highly provocative but evidence based view of drug addiction and its links with crime. Carl speaks from personal experience; he grew up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, where he himself engaged in petty crime and drug use. Today, Carl is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Columbia University, and a self-professed advocate for social justice and science.  

"I was unprepared for what I would learn as I went about making my contribution to the study of the neurobiology of addiction." - Carl Hart, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevosk Djansezian]

“I was unprepared for what I would learn as I went about making my contribution to the study of the neurobiology of addiction.” – Carl Hart, TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Kevosk Djansezian]

We reached out to Carl to learn more about why his talk is particularly timely today. Here was his response:

Today – May 19 –  would have been Malcolm X’s 90th birthday, had he not been assassinated fifty years ago. Malcolm X’s influence on human rights, social justice activists, and me is increasingly apparent as society becomes more concerned about issues of over-policing in certain communities. My TEDMED talk, “Let’s quit abusing drug users,” is particularly important today because it illustrates the detrimental impact of aggressive selective drug law enforcement on communities of color.

In recent months, the issue of hostile, militarized policing has been pushed to the national forefront in response to the killing of the black, unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, MO. Similar types of killings have occurred too often under the guise of the war on drugs. Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Kathryn Johnston, Trayvon Martin, and Tarika Wilson are just a few examples. In all of these cases, authorities suspected that the deceased individual was either intoxicated from or selling an illicit substance. This talk shows that dangers of drugs have been exaggerated, and that this has helped to created an environment where unjustified police killings are more likely to occur.

The importance of my talk is even further enhanced because too many people misattribute societal ills to drug problems. For example, the majority of people who use drugs – 80-90% – don’t have a drug problem. They are responsible members of our society. They are employed; they pay their taxes; they take care of their families; and in some cases, they even become President of the United States. Our three most recent Presidents all reported using illegal drugs when they were younger. In my talk, I clearly show that the real problems faced by society are not drugs but are poverty, unemployment, ignorance and the dismissal of science that surrounds drugs.

In my TEDMED talk, I also present intriguing results from my own research, during which we brought crack users into the laboratory and offered them $5 cash, or a hit of crack worth more than $5. We repeated this many times with each person over several days in the laboratory.  The drug users chose the drug about half of the time, and the $5 the other half. Even a nominal amount of money was enough to deter them from taking the drug at least half of the time. These findings are inconsistent with the notion that crack users display the insane, “anything for a hit” behavior that I had been previously taught. They also demonstrate how attractive alternatives, such as viable economic opportunities, can go a long way in decreasing societal problems, including drug abuse.

Watch Carl’s TEDMED 2014 talk, “Let’s quit abusing drug users,” here:

 

A chat about guts and brains

Join TEDMED Speaker John Cryan for a Twitter Chat about the gut-brain connection this Thursday, March 19 at 2:30pm.
Do you want to learn more about the research behind John Cryan’s TEDMED talk, “Food for thought: How gut microbes change your mind”?

As part of Society for Neuroscience’s #BrainWeek, TEDMED is hosting a Twitter Chat with John from 2:30-3:30pm (ET) this Thursday, March 19.

Delve a little deeper into John’s talk and learn more from him about the gut-brain connection.

Tweet your questions using the #TEDMED hashtag!

Meanwhile, watch and share John’s talk to learn more and check out his recommended reading + podcasts.

We’re looking forward to an insightful, collaborative discussion and hope you will join us then!

 

 

 

More than a gut feeling: Q&A with John Cryan

John Cryan, a neuropharmacologist and microbiome expert from the University College Cork, reveals surprising and perhaps strange facts and insights about how our thoughts and emotions are connected to our guts.

Butterflies in the brain? Neuroscientist and microbiome expert at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED].

Butterflies in the brain? Neuroscientist and microbiome expert at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED].

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

It is an amazing opportunity to put forward a relatively novel concept, in my case that the microbiome may be a key regulator of brain function. The microbiome is one of the hottest areas in medicine and this opportunity allowed me to bring this within a neuroscience context.

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

The talk summarizes the research on microbe-brain interactions. This is a rapidly evolving field and truly multidisciplinary in nature; I hope my talk reflects this. This research has implications across many aspects of medicine, including psychiatry, gastroenterology, obstetrics, gynecology and pediatrics.

Is there anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

Recently, we have been focusing on why, from an evolutionary context, microbe-brain interactions emerged; I wasn’t able to go into this very much during my talk. At TEDMED I talked about how bacteria are required for brain development and social behavior but don’t ask why; in a recent paper we collaborated with the evolutionary microbiologist Seth Bordenstein from Vanderbilt to discuss some of the reasons behind this.

What’s next for you?

Right now we are looking to understand the mechanisms as to how microbes could influence the brain. Moreover, we are investigating the impact of naturalistic disturbances of the microbiota on brain function and behaviours such as Cesarean delivery, antibiotic use and early life stress.

Join us for a live Twitter Chat with John at 2:30pm EST on Thursday, March 19, as part of Brain Awareness Week! Tweet your advance questions #TEDMED and #BrainWeek. Check back on our blog for chat topics!

Giving Sight to Innovation: Q&A with Uzma Samadani

Uzma Samadani is the cofounder of Oculogica, a neurodiagnostic company that, through eye movement tracking, specializes in detecting concussions and other brain injuries otherwise invisible on radiologic scans. She shared her journey of discovery on the TEDMED 2014 stage. We caught up with Uzma and learned more about her vision and methods of discovery.

Uzma Samadani at TEDMED 2014 discusses her eye tracking innovation for diagnosing brain injury.

“I hope people who hear my talk are inspired to work hard and make their own discoveries.” Uzma Samadani at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED]

Who or what has been your main source of inspiration that drives you to innovate?

Necessity was the mother of invention, and serendipity the father. We sought to develop an outcome measure for a clinical trial for severely injured vegetative patients when we developed the eye-tracking algorithm that we subsequently realized could detect concussion. We had expected to use the eye-tracking algorithm to calculate how well people could pay attention and fixate their gaze, but then were surprised to find that it actually showed us what was wrong with the brain. Now that we have discovered this technology, we understand its implications: it enables us to detect previously ‘invisible’ brain injury. We are inspired, driven even, to innovate and make this technology available to everyone who has sustained trauma. We can help people who previously would not have had objective measures indicating brain injury.

Why does your talk matter now? What do you hope people learn from your talk?

My talk is not so much about brain injury directly as it is about a moment of discovery – the rare shock of finding something remarkable and considering its implications, then the doubt, and the concern about artifact. And then, the gradual realization that we have discovered something real and potentially extremely helpful for humankind. I hope people who hear my talk are inspired to work hard and make their own discoveries.

What is the legacy you want your work to leave?

Brain injury is the single greatest cause of death and disability for Americans under the age of 35 years of age. By creating a biomarker and outcome measure for injury, we can test treatments and therapies and also evaluate prophylactics such as helmets. The true measure of our success will be its utility: to other researchers, to clinicians and to the people who sustain injury.

Brain in Progress: Why Teens Can’t Always Resist Temptation

by Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH

It’s National Drug Facts Week, when middle and high schools all over the country host events to raise awareness about drugs and addiction, with the help of scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The issues I discussed in my TEDMED talk—the changes in the brain common to obesity and drug addiction—are especially pertinent to the struggles teens face to resist drugs, because adolescence is a crucial period both of susceptibility to the rewards of drugs and of vulnerability to the long-term effects of drug exposure.

“My obsession is to engage the health care system in addiction.” Nora Volkow on Nora Volkow at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.]

“My obsession is to engage the health care system in addiction.” Nora Volkow at TEDMED 2014. [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED.]

Adolescence is a time of major brain development—particularly the maturation of prefrontal cortical regions involved in self-control and the neural circuits linking these areas to the reward regions. The prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions and comparative judgments about the value of different courses of action, is crucial for regulating our behavior in the face of potential rewards like drugs and food. Adolescents are prone to risky behaviors and impulsive actions that provide instant gratification instead of eventual rewards.  In part, this is because their prefrontal cortex is still a work in progress.

The incomplete maturation of the prefrontal cortex is a major factor in why young people are so susceptible to abusing drugs, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs. There are numerous pressures in their lives to try these substances (stress and peers, for example), but inadequate cognitive resources to help them resist. Because their brain architecture is still not fully developed, adolescents’ brains are more susceptible to being radically changed by drug use—often specifically by impeding the development of the very circuits that enable adults to say “later” … or “not at all” … to dangerous or unhealthy options. Thus, when drug abuse begins at a young age, it can become a particularly vicious cycle. Research shows that the earlier a teen first uses drugs, the likelier he or she is to become addicted to them or to become addicted to another substance later in life. It is likely that the same dynamics are at play when it comes to fattening food and the brain’s reaction to it.

Though parents may get frustrated by their teens’ poor decisions at times, they usually forgive them—because on some level adults understand that kids’ internal guidance systems aren’t yet fully functional. People often have a harder time extending that same forgiveness to adults who suffer from addictions or obesity, because we think they should be better able to control their impulses.  But, the fact is that their internal guidance systems, too, are compromised. For such individuals, it is not a question of free choice or just saying no to temptation; in many cases, only externally offered support and treatment can create the conditions in which their guidance systems can be gradually restored to proper working order.

Averting obesity and drug use also requires that, as a society, we take responsibility for the environments we create for young people. Instead of school cafeterias with an array of cheap, tempting foods high in calories and low in nutrients, we must expose young decision makers to food options that strengthen their health and resolve. Instead of stress-filled or empty time that promotes drug use, kids need access to appealing, healthy, and meaningful activities that encourage them to take pride in themselves and their behavior. Arming young people with scientific information about their bodies, brains, and the substances that can affect them is also crucial—which is the goal of National Drug Facts Week.

Obesity and drug abuse are medical issues, not moral failings. It is gratifying to present the converging science clearly showing this in a forum like TEDMED, composed of people who are informed and curious about the latest medical science. My hope is that the general public becomes more compassionate about these issues, supports wider access to treatment, and understands the importance of greater investment in research on the dynamic ways our brain can be changed by our behavior and vice versa.

Neuroscientist Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH, applied a lens of addiction to the obesity epidemic in her TEDMED 2014 talk. We are excited to share Nora’s original piece on the TEDMED blog.

Check out our archived Facebook chat discussion with Nora about food addiction from studying the brain chemistry of people with drug addictions.