30 years of Awakenings

It’s 30 years since Oliver Sacks first pulled together the case notes of the 50 or so patients under his supervision at the Mount Carmel hospital in suburban New York and turned them into a best selling book. They also inspired both a play by Harold Pinter and a 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

His patients were among the few survivors of the sleeping sickness epidemic of the 1920s and during the summer of 1969 he began to administer the latest ‘wonder drug’, L-DOPA, which in some cases had an almost miraculous ‘awakening’ effect. Patients who had not spoken or walked in decades became ‘normal’ once again, able to communicate with their families and live active lives. The positive effects were not without negative ones though (Sacks doesn’t use the term ‘side-effects’) and the constant weighing up of the benefits versus the downsides for Sacks as doctor is evident throughout the book.

Steve Silberman wrote a great profile in Wired where he gets the Sacks methodology just right:

“In telling the stories of his patients, Sacks transformed the genre of the clinical case report by turning it inside out. The goal of the traditional case history is to arrive at a diagnosis. For Sacks, the diagnosis is nearly beside the point — a preamble or an afterthought. Since many of the conditions chronicled by him are incurable, the force driving his tales is not the race for a remedy but the patient’s striving to maintain his or her identity in a world utterly changed by the disorder. In Sacks’ case histories, the hero is not the doctor, or even medicine itself. His heroes are the patients who learned to tap an innate capacity for growth and adaptation amid the chaos of their disordered minds.” (read the full profile here).

For those of you who haven’t read the book, I heartily recommend it, partly because it will teach you something about what happened but partly because it will make you think about the knife-edge that we all live upon. It’s also a wonderful masterclass in how to chronicle important events.

The Dreamcatcher

Joe Griffin is interviewed in this week’s New Scientist about some of his theories on the causes of depression and what he believes are effective treatments. He’s credited by NS for having ‘triggered a quiet revolution’ with 12,000 health care professionals attending his workshops each year — he claims to be able to make significant inroads into treating depression in a day.

Click here for the full interview.

Frankenstein, racism and sockets

I’ve just dug up this old Wired article by Misha Glennie about some of the differences between Europe and the US when it comes to attitudes to science and technology — it certainly makes you think, although I’m a bigger fan of the EU way of doing things that Glennie seems to be. There are also some relevant points regarding the current (ridiculous) debate about which mobile phone standard should be used in post war Iraq.

“The impact of the industrial revolution on Shelley and her contemporaries was certainly comparable to the changes modern Europe is experiencing today. Shelley described her antihero, Victor Frankenstein, as a “modern Prometheus” who sought to acquire “new and almost unlimited powers” by sending an electrical charge through a patchwork of dead body parts. As an atheist, Shelley was concerned not about Frankenstein’s challenge to God’s order but to a Rousseau-esque natural order (in this she was an early environmentalist). She feared the application of science outside moral constraints. At the time, the question she posed regarding scientists’ manipulation of life was, of course, pure fantasy. Today, it looks to many Europeans to be remarkably prescient.”

Read on here.