Sunday, December 14, 2008

Science Cafe

Monday, I went to the Science cafe ( which had a presentation by Dr. Jerrold Vitek and Dr. Jay Alberts from The Cleveland Clinic. They did a community presentation on deep brain stimulation, which can be effective for diseases like Parkinson's. Some of the things I found fascinating:

1) This and related research was started relatively recently, by randomly lesioning and/or stimulating random parts of the brain. While this technique does have dramatic improvements for some patients, it was essentially created by trial and error with little regard for the theory of what effect the lesioning or stimulating actually had on the brain.

2) One of the presenters (I am still not sure which) had a Physiology degree. I was surprised to hear that advances in our understanding of how the brain works since this technique has started haven't helped much. He said better understanding of what structures do what things has given them ideas for a starting point, but again, progress is largely by trial and error.

3) Lesioning and stimulating seem to have similar effects. Obviously, stimulating is less permanent, and allows better fine tuning.

4) A friend and former coworker had this procedure done, with good results so far, probably by the people doing the presentation.

5) The effect of stimulating is not always immediate. Sometimes turning on/off the stimulation changes the problem like a light switch. In other cases, it can take days before the effect starts, and the effect can last for weeks weeks after stimulation stops.

6) Bilateral stimulation seems to result in a drop of cognitive ability, where unilateral does not. The research gave a vague answer when I asked why, and seemed to be much more interested in helping patients avoid the effect then explaining why this happens.

7) The researchers complained about lack of funding when asked one question about further research. I doubt leading researchers at The Cleveland Clinic are not worried about where their next meal comes from, but still don't understand how we can spend nearly 20 billion/year on NASA exploring outer space, but have little to no funding to understand something far more interesting and relevant. I follow NASA a lot, and their money is far better spent than much of what our government does, but they are an easy target having a large budget publicly available.

8) At least in one case, an insurance company paid for probe's to be implanted in someone's head, but denied the cost of the device to do the stimulation. I guess they thought wearing the probes would somehow help.