Explaining neuroscience in ongoing Instagram video series: A Q&A

At the beginning of the year, Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, PhD, pledged to post on Instagram one-minute educational videos about neuroscience for an entire year. Since a third of his regular followers come from Spanish-speaking countries, he posts them in both English and Spanish. We spoke soon after he launched the project. And now that half the year is over, I checked in with him about his New Year’s resolution.

How is your Instagram project going?

“It’s going great. I haven’t kept up with the frequency of posts that I initially set out to do, but it’s been relatively steady. The account has grown to about 13,500 followers and there is a lot of engagement. They ask great questions and the vast majority of comments indicate to me that people understand and appreciate the content. I’m really grateful for my followers. Everyone’s time is valuable and the fact that they comment and seem to enjoy the content is gratifying.”

What have you learned?

“The feedback informed me that 60 seconds of information is a lot for some people, especially if the topic requires new terms. That was surprising. So I have opted to do shorter 45-second videos and those get double or more views and reposts. I also have started posting images and videos of brains and such with ‘voice over’ content. It’s more work to produce, but people seem to like that more than the ‘professor talking’ videos.

I still get the ‘you need to blink more!’ comments, but fortunately that has tapered off. My Spanish is also getting better but I’m still not fluent. Neural plasticity takes time but I’ll get there.”

What is your favorite video so far?

“People naturally like the videos that provide something actionable for their health and well-being. The brief series on light and circadian rhythms was especially popular, as well as the one on how looking at the blue light from your cell phone in the middle of the night can potentially alter sleep and mood. I particularly enjoyed making that post since it combined vision science and mental health, which is one of my lab’s main focuses.”

What are you planning for the rest of the year?

“I’m kicking off some longer content through the Instagram TV format, which will allow people who want more in-depth information to get that. I’m also helping The Society for Neuroscience get their message out about their annual meeting. Other than that, I’m just going to keep grinding away at delivering what I think is interesting neuroscience to people that would otherwise not hear about it.”

Is it fun or an obligation at this point?

“There are days where other things take priority of course — research, teaching and caring for my bulldog Costello — but I have to do it anyway since I promised I’d post. However, it’s always fun once I get started. If only I could get Costello to fill in for me when I get busy…”

This is a reposting of my Scope story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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Celebrating cancer survivors by telling their stories

Photo of Martin Inderbitzen by Michael Goldstein

Neurobiologist and activist Martin Inderbitzen, PhD, began his talk with a question: “Did you ever face a life situation that was totally overwhelming?” Most of his audience likely answered yes, since he was speaking to cancer survivors and their families at a Stanford event called Celebrating Cancer Survivors.

The evening focused on life after cancer and highlighted Stanford’s Cancer Survivorship Program, which helps survivors and their families transition to life after treatment by providing multidisciplinary services and health care. Lidia Schapira, MD, a medical oncologist and director of the program, said they aim to  “help people back into health.”

But to me, the heart of the event was the personal stories openly shared by the attendees while standing in line for the food buffet or waiting for the speeches to begin. As a Hodgkin’s survivor who was treated at Stanford twenty-five years ago, I swapped “cancer stories” with my comrades.

Inderbitzen understands firsthand the importance of sharing such cancer survival stories. In 2012, he was diagnosed at the age of 32 with pancreatic cancer. From an online search, he quickly learned that 95 percent of people with his type of cancer die within a few years. However, his doctor gave him hope by mentioning a similar patient, who was successfully treated some years earlier and is now happily skiing in the mountains.

“This picture of someone skiing in the mountains became my mantra,” Inderbitzen explained. “I had all these bad statistics against me, but then I also had this one story. And I thought, maybe I can also be one story, because this story was somehow the personification of a possibility. It inspired me to rethink how I saw my own situation.”

Later, Inderbitzen publicly shared his own cancer journey, which touched many people who reached out to him. This inspired him to found MySurvivalStory.org — an initiative that documents inspiring cancer survival stories to help other cancer patients better cope with their illness. He and his wife quit their jobs, raised some funds and began traveling around the globe to find and record short videos of cancer survivors from different cultures.

“We share the stories in formats that people can consume when they have ‘chemo brain’ — like podcasts you can listen to and short videos you can process even when you’re tired,” he said. He added, “These stories are powerful because they provide us with something or someone to aspire to — someone who is a bit ahead of us, so we think “I can do that.’”

Inderbitzen isn’t the only one to recognize the empowering impact of telling your cancer story. For example, the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine compiles some patient stories on their Surviving Cancer website. And all of these stories have the potential to help both the teller and listener.

However, Inderbitzen offers the following advice when sharing your cancer story:

“Change the story you tell and you will be able to change the life you live. So that’s a very powerful concept. And I would like to challenge you and also encourage you that every day when you wake up and get out of bed and things are not looking good, remind yourself that it’s actually you who chooses which story to tell. And choosing a better story doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring reality. No, it just means that you’re giving yourself a chance.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

How does media multitasking affect the mind?

Image by Mohamed Hassan

Imagine that you’re working on your computer, watching the Warriors game, exchanging texts and checking Facebook. Sound familiar? Many people simultaneously view multiple media streams every day.

Over the past decade, researchers have been studying the relationship between this type of heavy media multitasking and cognition to determine how our media use is shaping our minds and brains. This is a particularly critical question for teenagers, who use technology for almost 9 hours every day on average, not including school-related use.

Many studies have examined the cognitive performance in young adults using a variety of task-based cognitive tests — comparing the performance of heavy and light multitaskers. According to a recent review article, these studies show that heavy media multitaskers perform significantly worse, particularly when the tasks require sustained, goal-oriented attention.

For example, a pivotal study led by Anthony Wagner, PhD, a Stanford professor of psychology and co-author of the review article, developed a questionnaire-based media multitasking index to identify the two groups — based on the number of media streams a person juggles during a typical media consumption hour, as well as the time spent on each media. Twelve media forms were included, ranging from computer games to cell phone calls.

The team administered their questionnaire and several standard cognitive tests to Stanford students. In one series of tests, the researchers measured the working memory capabilities of 22 light multitaskers and 19 heavy multitaskers. Working memory is the mental post-it note used to keep track of information, like a set of simple instructions, in the short term.

“In one test, we show a set of oriented blue rectangles, then remove them from the screen and ask the subject to retain that information in mind. Then we’ll show them another set of rectangles and ask if any have changed orientation,” described Wagner in a recent Stanford Q&A. “To measure memory capacity, we do this task with a different number of rectangles and determine how performance changes with increasing memory loads. To measure the ability to filter out distraction, sometimes we add distractors, like red rectangles that the subjects are told to ignore.”

Wagner also performed standard task-switching experiments in which the students viewed images of paired numbers and letters and analyzed them. The students had to switch back and forth between classifying the numbers as even or odd and the letters as vowels or consonants.

The Stanford study showed that heavy multitaskers were less effective at filtering out irrelevant stimuli , whereas light multitaskers found it easier to focus on a single task in the face of distractions.

Overall, this previous study is representative of the twenty subsequent studies discussed in the recent review article. Wagner and co-author Melina Uncapher, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, theorized that lapses in attention may explain most of the current findings — heavy media multitaskers have more difficulty staying on task and returning to task when attention has lapsed than light multitaskers.

However, the authors emphasized that the large diversity of the current studies and their results raise more questions than they answer, such as what is the direction of causation? Does heavier media multitasking cause cognitive and neural differences, or do individuals with such preexisting differences tend towards more multitasking behavior? They said more research is needed.

Wagner concluded in the Q&A:

“I would never tell anyone that the data unambiguously show that media multitasking causes a change in attention and memory. That would be premature… That said, multitasking isn’t efficient. We know there are costs of task switching. So that might be an argument to do less media multitasking.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine

Misconceptions about opioid use: A Medicine X discussion

Photo courtesy of Stanford Medicine X

We often hear about the “opioid crisis” and its devastating effects — more than 90 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose and about 2 million suffer from substance use disorders involving prescription opioids. But, argued panelists at a Stanford Medicine X session on the topic yesterday, the issues are often oversimplified in public discussion and by the media, which stigmatizes opioid users and contributes to misconceptions.

The afternoon panel — which Larry Chu, MD, moderator and executive director of Medicine X, deliberately called “Opioids in America” instead of “The Opioid Crisis” — offered a broad range of perspectives from patients and physicians. Among the misconceptions discussed by the panel:

  • Only drug addicts use opioids: Joe Riffe, an ePatient and paramedic, explained, “If you use opioids, you’re seen as weak or a drug addict or a drug seeker. I’ll never take an opioid on duty, but I’m forced to use them because I’m in too much pain from my amputation. And it’s really looked down upon, especially in the medical community.”
  • People choose to be opioid addicts: Ashley Elliott, a recovering addict, artist and psychology major, noted, “People that are addicted to opioids don’t want to be. And if you’re a recovering addict, finding a doctor who is willing to treat you as a human as opposed to an addict is difficult.” Thomas Kline, MD, PhD, a patient and geriatric medicine specialist in Raleigh, North Carolina, agreed: “People with opioid addictions have been lepers for years and now another 9 million people have become lepers because they take pain medicine.”
  • Opioids are readily available: “Opioids are not being thrown at patients like candy, as it’s sometimes portrayed in the media,” said Heather Aspell, a patient, artist, attorney and disability advocate. “We actually have to go through so many hoops to get our medication. Beyond simply getting the prescription from a doctor, it can be challenging to even find the medication. I get refused by pharmacies regularly.”
  • Doctors are adequately treating pain: Anesthesiologist and pain medicine specialist Frank Lee, MD, told the audience, “Data shows that we’re doing a terrible job for a lot of populations, including cancer patients, surgery patients and chronic pain patients. Now is the time to re-evaluate the paradigm. We don’t need more guidelines. We need to work together, providers and patients, to re-exam this pain-treatment paradigm.”
  • We handle prescription opioids like other countries: “I think the biggest misconception is that the United States is normal in how it handles prescription opioids,” said Stanford addiction expert Keith Humphreys, PhD. He later added, “The United States’ opioid use dwarfs any other nation by a very large factor. So we over prescribe. And at the same time, there are people who absolutely need these medications and don’t get them. So we also under prescribe. As my friend Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, says, we shouldn’t be pro-opioid or negative-opioid; we should be pro-patient.”

After the panel discussion, Medicine X executive board member Nick Dawson moderated a town hall — pushing the panel and audience to think boldly about potential solutions. Among attendees’ suggestions was to change how prescriptions are written by going beyond a numeric pain scale to identify the goal for the pain medication, being more specific about what is being treated on the script and creating a certification process for patients with chronic pain that is recognized by pharmacists.

Near the end of the session, Bruce Greenstein, the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ chief technology officer, announced an opioid challenge summit and code-a-thon taking place in Washington, D.C. this December. And Chu closed things out with a hopeful note: “I started out this conference asking us to think outside the box about these tough topics, and I think we made a start on that today. … We’re reducing the stigma about opioids by talking about it and we’re raising awareness. Let’s keep talking.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Stanford researcher travels to Qatar to discuss how behavior changes can improve global health

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Photo courtesy of Jodi Prochaska

About 1400 health-care experts and government officials from over a 100 countries recently attended the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Doha, Qatar. WISH aims to create a global community to tackle health-care challenges, such as the global burden of autism spectrum disorder and the rise in cardiovascular disease mortality.

The summit included a Behavioral Insights Forum to investigate how new findings on behavior change can lead to better health outcomes at a lower cost. Jodi Prochaska, PhD, an associate professor of medicine with the Stanford Prevention Research Center, was a member of the behavioral insights team. We recently discussed the WISH summit and her involvement.

What was accomplished at the WISH Summit?

“The WISH meeting — in an intensely focused 2-day period — engaged and fostered collaborations among academic researchers, health professionals, public policy officials and entrepreneurs. The meeting showcased innovations that can make a difference for health-care communities globally.

The program content included nine panel forums on: accountable care, autism, cardiovascular disease, population health, health economics, precision medicine, health profession education, genomics and behavioral insights. Each collaborative panel generated a white paper centered on its particular area of expertise. In addition, there were several inspiring keynote speakers.”

Why did you get involved with the behavioral insights panel? How did you participate?

“The behavioral insights team sounded novel, and I was able to help shape the white paper and participate at the WISH meeting. Oftentimes in academic research, behavior change is siloed — you have your tobacco control experts, your nutrition experts and your physical activity experts. The WISH panel focused on bridging across behaviors to identify key principles of change at the individual, social, organizational and policy levels for supporting wellness and wellbeing. We identified case studies from around the globe and covered a range of health behaviors: exercise, diet, tobacco, cancer screening, suicide and accident prevention, medication adherence and patient safety.

For instance, the panel showcased research I am doing with the University of California, Irvine using Twitter to facilitate peer-to-peer support groups for quitting smoking, which has doubled quit rates relative to usual care. The meeting also showcased a trial to paint reference lines on the rail track in Mumbai to improve pedestrians’ ability to judge speed, which led to a 75 percent decline in trespassing deaths at the test location. Also, we discussed the success of a project to send letters to the highest antibiotic prescribers in the U.K., which resulted in 75,000 fewer doses being prescribed across 800 practices.”

What was Qatar like?

“Doha, Qatar was striking. It was modern and pristine, as well as easy and safe to navigate. The people of Qatar were hospitable and kind. During my stay, I had a chance to go in the Persian Gulf and to visit a local market with traditional food, spices and live animals.

I was thrilled to represent Stanford in Doha, Qatar and to bring back the knowledge gained and connections made for future collaborations.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Science at the Theater: Next Big Tech Idea

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You be the judge! Help pick the next big tech idea that will benefit society.

Five scientists will pitch their technology ideas at the next Science at the Theater, a free public lecture hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It will be held on Monday, February 24 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

The audience and a panel of judges will listen to the scientists’ technology pitches, then vote on which one will help society the most. The topics  that will be discussed are:

  • “Making Better Batteries” by Guoying Chen, Chemist
  • “Tracking and Hacking Personal DNA Damage” by Sylvain Costes, Biohysicist
  • “Making Energy Measurement Stick ” by Steven Lanzisera, Applied Energy Scientist
  • “Molecular Velcro” by Gloria Olivier, Chemist
  • “Dress Code for Martians” by Alex Zetti, Physcist

Free reservations for the event are still available. But hurry, because these events usually fill up.

Expand Your Horizons

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It isn’t too late to sign up for an upcoming Expanding Your Horizons conference. These conferences are designed to inspire middle and high school girls to careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The girls participate in fun hands-on activities led by women role models. For instance, they can spend the day building lego robots and participating in a robot demolition derby.

There are also workshops for parents, including discussions on how best to support your daughter throughout her schooling.

UC Berkeley’s Expanding Your Horizons conference will be held on March 15, 2014 and registration is still open for girls, parents and volunteers. There are also conferences at other Bay Area locations in the spring and fall.