NEW YORK — The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture Series began on September 19 with an informative lecture by Dr. Helen Blair Simpson on the treatment of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The remarkable findings were presented with clarity for a “general, sophisticated audience” as described by Thomas M. Jessell, co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and Claire Tow Professor of Motor Neuron Disorders at Columbia University, who gave the opening remarks, welcomed all the attendees, and thanked Stavros Niarchos Foundation Chief Operating Officer Vasili Tsamis and Director of Programs & Strategic Initiatives Stelios Vasilakis.
The lecture entitled Hope in the Face of Fear: How Advances in Neuroscience Will Transform Treatments for Anxiety, OCD offered an introduction into the debilitating group of disorders that affect millions of people’s lives around the world. As Dr. Simpson pointed out, anxiety disorders, including OCD, affect more people worldwide than any other group of mental illnesses and are the sixth leading cause of global disability according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Dr. Simpson’s focus is on both improving the lives of today’s patients, while also working in concert with brain imagers, geneticists, and others to develop revolutionary treatments for the patients of tomorrow. A professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and Director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Dr. Simpson is one of the world’s leading experts in anxiety. She helped to develop the first OCD treatment guidelines for the American Psychiatric Association, and has also advised the WHO on obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. Having started her career as an animal behaviorist, Simpson now studies human animals, as Jessell said in his introduction.
Dr. Simpson explained that anxiety disorders and OCD often begin in childhood or adolescence and for patients who do not receive treatment that can mean a “long life of suffering.” Anxiety and OCD are so disabling because they start early and can lead to social isolation from childhood onwards, the symptoms take time away from work and family, and sufferers often avoid the triggers themselves, continuing the cycle. To describe what anxiety feels like, Dr. Simpson showed a slide of the famous Edvard Munch painting The Scream and read Munch’s own description of the inspiration for the painting.
The advantages of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) over medication alone in treating anxiety disorders was presented with dramatic graphs showing how CBT with or without medication is the best treatment available today, but studies are ongoing on different medications, including ketamine. The challenges of translating the results from studies with mice to practical treatment for humans were also noted in the lecture.
“Mice do not have treatment preferences, as far we know,” Dr. Simpson said, noting that some human patients prefer not taking medication due to the many side effects including weight gain and sexual dysfunction. Brain scans have allowed doctors and scientists to study anxiety disorders and OCD in new ways, creating opportunities for further study on the hyperactive brain loop of those suffering with OCD. As a physician/scientist, Dr. Simpson said, she is interested in how the findings can help patients in the real world and she cares about improving public health, citing the need for “accessible, acceptable, and affordable” treatment for these debilitating illnesses.
The well-attended event concluded with questions from the audience.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Brain Insight Lecture series, is offered free to the public to “enhance understanding of the biology of the mind and the complexity of human behavior,” as noted in the invitation to the event. The lecture series hosted by Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute and supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, is the first initiative of two announced by the SNF in March. The series of four lectures per year, featuring Columbia University scientists, aims to address issues of broader societal importance in a manner that informs and engages the community.
The second initiative is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Teacher-Scholar Program, run by Kelley Remole, Ph.D., Director of Neuroscience Outreach for the Zuckerman Institute. The program aims to provide selected, high school, science teachers in New York City with an opportunity to strengthen their science communication skills while developing lesson plans for their classrooms.
Andreas Dracopoulos, Co-President of the Board of Directors of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, said of the two initiatives: “The dissemination of knowledge and engaging a broader audience are fundamental tenets of our grant-making philosophy. These two initiatives bring the important scientific work that takes place at the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute into the greater community, enhancing public understanding of new developments on neuroscience research and its expansive consequences. The ability of high schools students at large to keep up with new scientific developments plays a critical role in determining a society’s future competitiveness and prosperity. At the same time, reaching out to high school teachers will provide a new generation of potential scientists with knowledge on current research developments in neuroscience and their impact.”
“What distinguishes Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute is its cohesion – we have brought together a visionary group of neuroscientists, researchers who share a deep commitment to improving our understanding of brain and mind, but equally importantly, to conveying what is now known to a broad audience beyond campus,” said Jessell, “The initiatives funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation are crucial in our attempts to inform the public about brain science, engage the local community, and ignite the imagination of the next generation of brain scientists.”