Sunday, March 29, 2009

Reporting on Schizophrenia Research

My annual conference season unexpectedly began three weeks early today, when I attended what I thought would be an afternoon local family forum on schizophrenia. I turned up at the Grand Hyatt on San Diego's waterfront only discover the forum was a satellite to a four-day major world conference: The International Conference on Schizophrenia Research, held every two years.

So that explained the star-studded list of speakers at our local family forum.

(Small sound-bite from that forum: According to John McGrath MD, PhD of the University of Queensland, hallucinations and delusions are "very very common" in the general population. Four percent of the US population hears voices.)

As soon as the forum ended, I headed over to the registration area of the main conference to secure media credentials. Mind you, here I was, a mental health journalist feeling obliged to explain why I knew nothing about a major world schizophrenia conference in my own backyard until today.

"Bipolar," I said to someone behind the desk, pointing to a copy of my book I happened to have in my bag, as if that explained everything. Another person was called over to assist.

"Tamminga," said the name on her tag.

She caught the look on my face. "It looks like you're familiar with the name," she said. "I'm her daughter." As in daughter of Carol Tamminga MD of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, first rank researcher and one of the conference organizers. In addition, Dr Tamminga is very generous in giving her time to NAMI and other causes. (That's Dr Tamminga's photo on this blog post.)

Nearly two years ago I happened to sit next to Dr Tamminga over dinner in Pittsburgh at a closed function at the Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder. (I was a special guest by virtue of a public service award I would receive two nights later.) Just to show you what a thoroughly gracious person Dr Tamminga is, our section of the table also included Thomas Insel MD, head of the NIMH, and Darrel Regier MD, co-chair of the DSM-V task force, but Dr Tamminga talked to me as if the other two weren't there.

"I was about to use your mother as a reference," I joked, then I briefly explained the connection.

Ten minutes later, I was at a patio table, poring over my conference materials. A brain scientist from Australia sat down, and for the next hour we talked about the brain, the metric system, politics, the environment, Einstein, and autism (she has a son with autism). Ninety percent of marriages involving an autistic child end in divorce, she informed me.

Tomorrow, I will be waking up before dawn to catch Dr Insel at a plenary session, then over to a morning symposium on "Dopamine Signaling in the Era of Molecular and Genetic Pathways." I'll hit the research poster sessions over lunch, then take in an afternoon of "Aberrant Functional Connectivity in Schizophrenia: Changes in Frequency, Symptoms, Drugs, and Genes."

Tuesday and Wednesday will be more of the same.

What is a depression and bipolar writer doing at a schizophrenia conference? From a recent blog post:

Back in 2003, I had one of those breakthrough moments, the type you associate with light bulbs switching on. I was at the American Psychiatric Association's annual meeting attending a symposium on genetics. Robert Freedman MD of the University of Colorado started explaining his research into schizophrenia.

"The DSM-IV was not designed with human gene function in mind and genes do not encode for psychopathology," he said. Instead, "genes encode simple molecules in cells that alter cell function and brain information processing."

I had kind of been aware of this, but this time I went, "Aha!" ... The upshot of my Aha! moment was the realization that to better understand my own illness (bipolar) I needed to research other illnesses as well, such as schizophrenia. The brain, after all, doesn't organize itself according to the DSM.

Listening to the schizophrenia people, in effect, gives me insights into my illness that I would never get from limiting my enquiry to the mood disorders experts. Take my word for it, I'm like a kid in a candy store at these events. The only thing about my job that I love more than listening to super-smart people who have dedicated their lives to improving yours and mine is writing about it.

Stay tuned ...

No comments: