Helen Mayberg grew up in a medical family. Her father practiced family medicine in Orange County, California, after considering training in neurosurgery. She spent time in her uncle’s nuclear medicine lab at UC Irvine, learning how radiotracers could be used to map physiological functions in the body. While she helped with small tasks in the lab, she and her uncle would talk about the potential for mapping brain function, a topic in its infancy. “I loved the lab and the opportunity it provided to think about new ways to solve problems,” she says.
As a USC medical student Mayberg’s interests in neuropsychiatric disorders became more focused, but she had difficulty deciding between residency training in psychiatry, neurology, or neurosurgery. There were limited opportunities in those days for brain-based quantitative measurements of complex behavior. Computed tomography (CT) was only newly available to help diagnose brain lesions; positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were not available.
But in her senior year, she had the opportunity to study with behavioral neurologist Norman Geschwind in Boston, solidifying her decision to train in neurology but with a future focus on neuropsychiatry. Mayberg completed her neurology training at the Neurological Institute at Columbia Presbyterian in New York before moving to Johns Hopkins for further training in nuclear medicine and the emerging field of functional neuroimaging using PET.
Following training in PET methods and their application to the study of epilepsy, Mayberg chose to focus on major depression, taking a neurologist’s perspective and capitalizing on the mapping strategies offered by PET and later functional MRI scanning methods. Studies with colleagues in Baltimore, San Antonio, and then Toronto further explored the effects of various antidepressant treatments—starting first with medication, but then also cognitive behavioral therapy and even placebo—mapping brain regions most critical to illness recovery.
These studies led to observations about the critical role of the subcallosal cingulate region—Brodman Area 25—in both depression recovery and the mediation of negative mood in healthy subjects. The rationale to target Area 25 using deep brain stimulation in intractably ill depressed patients was developed and ultimately tested by her team in Toronto, bringing cutting-edge neuroscience to the threshold of therapeutic practicality.
“What makes this work gratifying is seeing how research can have major impact on individual patients’ lives, Mayberg says. “Deep brain stimulation seems to allow the brain to recover, but it takes time. It isn’t like flipping a switch, but it is still amazing to realize that patients who were debilitated for years by depression are able to return to normal lives, going back to their families, to school, to jobs—getting on with activities we all take for granted. It is wonderful to see people thrive after fighting their brains for so long.”
The experiences of her research subjects are teaching Mayberg and her colleagues things about the brain they could not have anticipated, helping to better design future studies. “All scientists should be so lucky as to have this kind of feedback,” Mayberg says. She is encouraging students to study neuroscience, not just because it is interesting, but because we need to understand how the brain works to help people affected by neuropsychiatric disorders like depression. “This is an area where science and humanity meet,” she says.
Mayberg is scheduled to deliver her Nobel Conference lecture at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4. Click here for more information about this year’s Nobel Conference.
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