So you're sitting in a bus when you see a baby smile sunnily and gurgle at his mother. Your automatic response? You smile too. You're jogging in the park, when you see a guy trip over his shoelaces and fall while running. Your knee jerk reaction? You wince. Even though you're completely fine and unscathed yourself. Or, to give a more dramatic example; you're watching Titanic for the umpteenth time and as you witness Jack and Rose's final moments together, you automatically reach for a tissue and wipe your tears in whole hearted sympathy ( and maybe blow your nose loudly, if you're an unattractive crier like yours truly).
And here the question arises- why? Why do we experience the above mentioned responses to situations that have nothing to do with us directly? As mere passive observers, what makes us respond at gut level to someone else's happiness or pain, delight or excitement, disgust or fear? In other words, where is this instinctive response to other people's feelings and actions that we call empathy coming from?
Science believes it may have discovered the answer- mirror neurons.
In the early 1990s, a group of scientists (I won't bore you with the details of who, when and where) were performing experiments on a bunch of macaque monkeys, using electrodes attached to their brains. Quite by accident, it was discovered that when the monkey saw a scientist holding up a peanut, it fired off the same motor neurons in its brain that would fire when the monkey held up a peanut itself. And that wasn't all. Interestingly, they also found that these motor neurons were very specific in their actions. A mirror neuron that fired when the monkey grasped a peanut would also fire only when the experimenter grasped a peanut, while a neuron that fired when the monkey put a peanut in its mouth would also fire only when the experimenter put a peanut in his own mouth. These motor neurons came to be dubbed as 'mirror neurons'.
It was a small leap from monkeys to humans. And with the discovery of a similar, if not identical mirror neuron system in humans, the studies, hypotheses and theories continue to build. The strange thing is that mirror neurons seem specially designed to respond to actions with clear goals- whether these actions reach us through sight, sound, smell etc, it doesn't matter. A quick example- the same mirror neurons will fire when we hop on one leg, see someone hopping, hear someone hopping or hear or read the word 'hop'. But they will NOT respond to meaningless gestures, random or pointless sounds etc. Instead they may well be understanding the intentions behind the related action. This has led to a very important hypothesis- the 'action understanding' ability of mirror neurons.
Before the discovery of mirror neurons, scientists believed our ability to understand each other, to interpret and respond to another's feeling or actions was the result of a logical thought process and deduction. However, if this 'action understanding' hypothesis is proved right, then it would mean that we respond to each other by feeling, instead of thinking. For instance, if someone smiles at you, it automatically fires up your mirror neurons for smiling. They 'understand the action' and induce the same sensation within you that is associated with smiling. You don't have to think about what the other person intends by this gesture. Your smile flows thoughtlessly and effortlessly in return.
Which brings us to yet another important curve- if mirror neurons are helping us to decode facial expressions and actions, then it stands to reason that those gifted people who are better at such complex social interpretations must be having a more active mirror neuron system.(Imagine your mom's strained smile coupled with the glint in her eye after you've just thrown a temper tantrum in front of a roomful of people...it promises dire retribution my friends. Trust me.)
Then does this mean that people suffering from disorders such as autism (where social interactions are difficult) have a dysfunctional or less than perfect mirror neuron system in some way?
Some scientists believe it to be so. They call it the 'broken mirror hypothesis', where they claim that malfunctioning mirror neurons may be responsible for an autistic individual's inability to understand the intention behind other people's gestures or expressions. Such people may be able to correctly identify an emotion on someone's face, but they wouldn't understand it's significance. From observing other people, they don't know what it feels like to be sad, angry, surprised or scared.
However, the jury is still out on this one folks. The broken mirror hypothesis has been questioned by others who are still skeptical about the very existence of these wonder neurons, or just how it is that these neurons alone suffered such a developmental hit when the rest of the autistic brain is working just dandy? Other scientists argue that while mirror neurons may help your brain to understand a concept, they may not necessarily ENCODE that concept. For instance, babies understand the meaning behind many actions without having the motor ability to perform them. If this is true, then an autistic person's mirror neurons are perfectly fine...they were just never responsible for his lack of empathy in the first place.
Slightly confused? Curious to find out more about these wunderkinds of the human brain? Join the club. Whether you're an passionate believer in these little fellas with their seemingly magical properties or still skeptical, let me add to your growing interest with one parting shot- since imitation appears to be the primary function of mirror neurons, they might well be partly responsible for our cultural evolution! How, you ask? Well, since culture is passed down from one generation to another through sharing, observation followed by imitation, these neurons are at the forefront of our lifelong learning from those around us. Research has found that mirror neurons kick in at birth, with infants just a few minutes old sticking their tongues out at adults doing the same thing.
So do these mirror neurons embody our humanity? Are they responsible for our ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes, to empathize and communicate our fellow human beings? That has yet to be determined. But after decades of research, one thing is for sure-these strange cells haven't yet ceased to amaze and we definitely haven't seen the last of them. To quote Alice in Wonderland, the tale keeps getting "curiouser and curiouser"!
So, I think its about time I posted another blog post!
A few weeks ago I received the results from my most recent scan. I was both nervous and excited to find out my results, after months of tests and being misdiagnosed several times I just wanted to know what was wrong with me. However, as I read through the letter from my consultant I realised that my journey was just beginning. I was diagnosed with a rare stomach condition.
Gastroparesis. A chronic illness. There is no known cure, just various treatments with limited success. I didn’t really know how to react to this news. Shouldn’t I be happy that I finally knew what was wrong?
I had convinced myself for months that as soon as the doctors found out what was wrong, they could fix it and I’d be better in no time, but this wasn’t to be. I couldn’t understand how this could happen. Slowly the reality began to sink in, I’ll probably be fighting this battle for the rest of my life.
I think the mental aspect of chronic conditions is so commonly overlooked. I’ve sat through endless lectures about the pathophysiology of illnesses but I’ve never once stopped to think what it must be like to actually have it. The way it can limit your life, from not being able to go for a drink with friends because you’re in too much pain to the countless hospital appointments that your life seems to revolve around. The thing that hit me the most is the amount of medications I have to take on a daily basis just to make my symptoms bearable. I no longer have full control of my life and that's the worst part.
This experience has given me an invaluable insight into how patients with chronic illness feel. It affects almost every aspect of your life and you can never escape. It scares me to think of the future, I never know when I’m going to get my next flare up or how long its going to last. I just have to take one day at a time and hope that when I wake up tomorrow I won’t be too nauseous.
After spending a few weeks feeling down about it all, I’ve realised that I just have to enjoy life when I can and be grateful that I can still live a normal-ish life. It doesn’t matter how much I complain, it's not going to go away, and I think I’ve finally accepted that fact.
If anything, this experience has made me more determined to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor. I’ve been a lot more motivated to work harder so that one day I can help others like me through some of their toughest times, hopefully bringing them some comfort and relief.
Functions of the Heart
Blood flow Through the Heart
Cardiac Muscle Cells
Intrinsic Conduction System
Factors Affecting Cardiac Output
Regulation of the Heart
Primary control factors of the heart
Congestive Heart Failure
This field of medicine requires much more physiological and pathophysiological knowledge than most people give it credit for. Psychiatric illness DO have physical manifestations of symptoms; in fact those symptoms help form the main criteria for differential diagnoses. For example, key physical symptoms of depression, besides having a low mood for more than two weeks (yes, two weeks is all it takes to be classified as 'depressed'), include fatigue, change in appetite, unexplained aches/pains, changes in menstrual cycle if you're a female, altered bowel habits, abnormal sleep, etc. Aside from this, studies suggest that psychiatric illnesses put you at higher risk for physical conditions including heart disease, osteoarthritis, etc. (the list really does go on)
Although some mental health conditions, like cognitive impairments, still do not have very effective treatment options; most psychiatric medications work very well, and are necessary for treating the patient. The stigma surrounding them by the public causes a huge problem for doctors. Many patients are reluctant to comply with medications because they are not as widely accepted as the ones for non-mental health conditions. A psychiatrist holds a huge responsibility for patient education. It can be tough to teach your patients about their medication, when many of them refuse to belief there is anything wrong with them (this is also because of stigma).
Contrary to my previous beliefs, psychiatrists DO NOT sit around talking about feelings all day. The stereotypical image of someone lying down on a couch talking about their thoughts/feelings while the doctor holds up ink blots, is done more in 'cognitive behavioural therapy.' While this is a vital healthcare service, it's not really what a psychiatrist does. Taking a psychiatric history is just like taking a regular, structured medical history; except you have to ask further questions about their personal history (their relationships, professional life, significant life events, etc), forensic history, substance misuse history (if applicable), and childhood/developmental history. Taking a psychiatric history for a new patient usually takes at least an hour.
The interesting thing about about treating a psychiatric patient is that the best guidelines you have for making them healthy is their personality before the symptoms started (this is called 'pre-morbid personality'). This can be difficult to establish, and can often be an ambiguous goal for a doctor to reach. Of course, there is structure/protocol for each illness, but each patient will be unique. This is a challenge because personalities constantly evolve, healthy or not, and the human mind is perpetual.
On top of this, whether mental or physical, a serious illness usually significally impacts a person's personality.
Most psychiatric conditions, while being very treatable, will affect the patient will struggle with for their whole life. This leaves the psychiatrist with a large portion of the responsibility for the patient's quality of life and well-being; this can be vey rewarding and challenging. The state of a person's mind is a perpetual thing, choosing the right medication is not enough.
Before I had done this rotation, I was quite sure that this was a field I was not interested in. I still don't know if it is something I would pursue, but I'm definitely more open-minded to it now!
PS: It has also taught me some valuable life lessons; most of the patients I met were just ordinary people who were pushed a little too far by the unfortunate combination/sequence of circumstances in their life. Even the ones who have committed crimes or were capable of doing awful things.. It could happen to anyone, and just because I have been lucky enough to not experience the things those people have, does not mean I am a better person for not behaving the same way as them.
Rates of five serious complications related to diabetes—myocardial infarction, stroke, end stage kidney failure, lower limb amputation, and death from hyperglycemia — have all decreased among adults with diabetes in the US over the past two decades, according to a new study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1