TEDMED never fails to inundate me with interesting perspectives on the various forces shaping health and wellness in our world—brand-new ideas as well as science revisiting old wisdom to bring new insight. This year was no exception. While the topics and disciplines of the speakers ranged widely, I found myself finding several themes emerging as I reflected on the two and a half days.
First, TEDMED never fails to bring to the stage pioneers, passionate minds pushing the boundaries of what we can do with technology and science to understand and improve healthcare. For example, Kevin Tracey is demonstrating the power of electricity to help RA patients by implanting on the vagus nerve small devices that deliver electrical pulses that adjust the body’s production of TNF, just as effectively as biologic medicines but without the side effects. Sam Sternberg gave us a crash course in CRISPR and how we will soon be able to use CRISPRs to add and delete base pairs at specifically targeted DNA loci, to essentially cut out genes that turn on specific inherited diseases and effectively cure these diseases. Maybe most inspirational to me was Chris Mason, a meta-genomicist and one of the scientists working on the NASA 500-year-plan—to allow humans to live on other planets and maybe other solar systems. As he pointed out, if you take the really long view, we will eventually need to colonize other solar systems if we wish for species to continue beyond the life cycle of our own sun (wow). He’s thinking about how to genetically engineer our microbiome to help us adapt to other environments, tailoring the millions of microorganisms that live on or in us. He used a phrase that blew my mind: “Evolution has self-actualized” and has created in us a species that will very soon be capable of directing our own evolution. And, certainly not least, Ken Nealson, who is an electro-microbiologist who discovered and named a microorganism that essentially respirates solids (including sewage and garbage) and excretes water and energy.
Peter Janicki leveraged some of this technology to solve a huge health problem. An industrial designer, he was approached by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the challenge of cleaning up the heaps of garbage and raw sewage in developing-world slums. When he initially thought about the problem as just “getting rid of the sewage” he wound up feeling like there was no good solution. But as he thought about it, he decided that rather than trying to make the problem simpler or smaller, he needed to make it larger. He also needed to address the fact that this raw sewage led to serious health problems because it contaminated the drinking water. Plus it was extremely expensive to dispose of it, and because charity funding was inevitably short-lived, once built most wastewater treatment facilities ultimately shut down because they couldn’t afford the power to continue operating. By making the problem bigger and leveraging some of the new microbiology technology, he was able to create standalone machines the size of large trailers that take sewage and turn it into drinkable water and free electricity.
But for all of the sci-fi-sounding ideas and inventions, there were a number of notions that were equally powerful but endogenous. Jennifer Stellar has studied the positive effect that emotions can have on our physiological well-being by reducing the level of cortisol (a stress hormone) in our bodies. Interestingly, the emotions with the most powerful impact are the prosocial emotions: empathy and compassion, awe and a sense of connectedness to each other. Even Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, is focused on how happiness can be used as a driver of physical health. This was encouraging to me because Dilip Jeste, neuropsychiatrist, shared his research that even as we get older and less physically robust we get happier, perhaps as a result of acquiring more “wisdom.” He asked how it was possible that while our brains are aging we can get “wiser,” and it turns out that as we get older we increasingly leverage both hemispheres for problem solving simultaneously. So while we may not have as much raw horsepower, we have more torque when it comes to problem solving! In one of the most startling demonstrations of this mind-over-matter idea, filmmaker Holly Morris shot a documentary about the “babushkas of Chernobyl.” This group of women who 30 years ago refused to be displaced from their homes despite the toxic levels of radiation in the environment, have outlived their relocated peers by a decade or more. Is it possible that agency, a sense of place and home, love and community support can trump even some of the most hostile environmental factors in determining heath?
There were many more outstanding speakers and fascinating delegates ... including Vivienne Ming, who is looking at small interventions to maximize children’s potential; Roland Griffiths’ explorations of the therapeutic possibilities of hallucinogens; Louise Greenspan’s research into early puberty and the role both environmental stresses and the obesity epidemic are playing; and Pat Brown’s dedication to doing a better job than animals of turning plants into edible meat, and in the process creating much more sustainable means of manufacturing delicious protein alternatives.
As usual, the event leaves me energized and gives me new incentive to innovate, push the boundaries and find new ways to contribute to improving the overall health of our world ... and maybe even to create a 500-year plan of my own.