Two important tools for elucidating the brain's anatomy and function and one of the creative minds behind them
- Created: June 3, 2015
- Written by Ginny Fleming
Karl Deisseroth, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist in the Bioengineering Department at Stanford University, was recently portrayed in "Lighting the Brain" in the New Yorker magazine (18 May 2015).1 Several things about his personality and approach struck me. First, his interest in creative writing. His early dream in high school was to be a writer. As an undergraduate and also as a graduate student at Stanford in medicine and neuroscience he took writing classes. He remains an avid reader of fiction and poetry and is finishing a book of essays and short stories. Deisseroth says he perceives a connection between scientific inquiry and creative writing: "In writing, it's seeing the truth--trying to get to the heart of things with words and images and ideas. And sometimes you have to find unusual ways of getting to it."
What's he getting at? How has this approach manifest?
Deisseroth is atypical in working directly with psychiatric patients as well as conducting neuroscience research in the lab. He says that listening to his psychiatric patients provides a source of ideas and possible hypotheses and also concentrates his mind. He is motivated greatly by the frustration he feels firsthand when working with psych patients who are being prescribed medications without a clear understanding of how the brain works and of the mechanisms of psychiatric disease.
One depressed patient reported to Deisseroth that just looking at an object such as a piece of paper could fill him with hopelessness and dread. To Deisseroth, this way of phrasing the experience of depression was interesting. He could take that statement and design animal studies of object aversion to try to learn more about the disease and to characterize treatments.
Deisseroth manages to successfully compartmentalize the competing demands of his life (research, clinical practice, and family) so that he can focus and think through complex problems. For maximum creativity and problem-solving, he says he stops all physical activity, is completely still, and allows ideas to float up "like bubbles in liquid". After identifying a problem he wants to work on, he writes and sketches his ideas, drawing them to life, and identifying ways to chip away at the problem.
Deisseroth's two main contributions have been to successfully apply and extend optogenetic techniques in psychiatry and neurology research and to develop a technology ("CLARITY") to make biological tissues such as mammalian brains translucent and accessible to molecular probes.