Sunday, August 29, 2010

Collection of Cancerous Brains Helps Show Neurosurgery’s Rise

Super New York Times article about Dr. Harvey Cushing's collection of brains in jars, now housed in the Cushing Center at Yale. Homage to him as father of modern neurosurgery. Center has visiting hours! Be sure to check out the slide show:
Dr. Harvey Cushing, one of America's first neurosurgeons, kept extensive samples of his work, but many of the details have been lost. The brains and photos that are on exhibit at the Cushing Center at Yale University are believed to have been made as part of the patients' medical records. The collection includes photos taken of patients before and after operations, tumor specimens, and microscope images. In total, there are almost 10,000 glass plate negatives of patients treated by Dr. Harvey Cushing between 1902 and 1933.
Credit: The Harvey Cushing Brain Tumor Registry, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

Collection of Cancerous Brains Help Show Neurosurgery's Rise

August 23, 2010
Inside Neurosurgery’s Rise

NEW HAVEN — Two floors below the main level of Yale’s medical school library is a room full of brains. No, not the students. These brains, more than 500 of them, are in glass jars. They are part of an extraordinary collection that might never have come to light if not for a curious medical student and an encouraging and persistent doctor.

The cancerous brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing, who was one of America’s first neurosurgeons. They were donated to Yale on his death in 1939 — along with meticulous medical records, before-and-after photographs of patients, and anatomical illustrations. (Dr. Cushing was also an accomplished artist.) His belongings, a treasure trove of medical history, became a jumble of cracked jars and dusty records shoved in various crannies at the hospital and medical school.
Until now. In June 2010, after a colossal effort to clean and organize the material — 500 of 650 jars have been restored — the brains found their final resting place behind glass cases around the perimeter of the Cushing Center, a room designed solely for them.

These chunks of brains floating in formaldehyde bring to life a dramatic chapter in American medical history. They exemplify the rise of neurosurgery and the evolution of 20th-century American medicine — from a slipshod trial-and-error trade to a prominent, highly organized profession.

These patients had operations during the early days of brain surgery, when doctors had no imaging tools to locate a tumor or proper lighting to illuminate the surgical field; when anesthesia was rudimentary and sometimes not used at all; when antibiotics did not exist to fend off potential infections. Some patients survived the procedure — more often if Dr. Cushing was by their side.

Most of the jars contain a single brain; a few hold slices of brains from several patients. Some postoperative photographs next to the jars show patients with tumors bulging from their heads. When Dr. Cushing could not remove a tumor, he would remove a piece of the skull so the tumor would grow outward rather than compress the brain. It was not a cure, but it relieved the patient of many symptoms.

Dr. Cushing, born in Cleveland in 1869, was an undergraduate at Yale and finished his career here as a professor of history of medicine. In between, he went to Harvard for medical school, did his early surgical training at Johns Hopkins and became a surgical professor there, and then spent most of his career as chief of neurosurgery, a new specialty, at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital at Harvard (now Brigham and Women’s).

When he began operating in the late 19th century, a few other doctors were also venturing into the brain, but for the most part the patients did not survive the procedure.

“In the first decade of the 20th century, Harvey Cushing became the father of effective neurosurgery,” the medical historian Michael Bliss wrote in “Harvey Cushing: A Life in Surgery” (Oxford, 2005). “Ineffective neurosurgery had many fathers.

“Cushing became the first surgeon in history who could open what he referred to as ‘the closed box’ of the skull of living patients with a reasonable certainty that his operations would do more good than harm.”

Sometimes doctors went into the brain and could not find the tumor. Sometimes they talked to patients during surgery. Dr. Cushing, for one, often used only the local anesthetic Novocain. (The brain itself does not have pain receptors, but having one’s skull cut open must have been agonizing.) Mr. Bliss writes that in 1910, midway through a 10-hour operation on the renowned physician and Army Gen. Leonard Wood, Cushing wanted to stop operating and continue another day, but General Wood — fully alert — begged him to continue.

Dr. Dennis Spencer, the chairman of neurosurgery at Yale and the Harvey and Kate Cushing professor of neurosurgery, said Dr. Cushing’s major accomplishment was “his meticulous operative technique.”

“Whatever approach he was going to use to get to a tumor,” Dr. Spencer said, “he had this incredibly good judgment in terms of where the tumor was, getting there without harming the brain and then getting out.”

Brain surgeons in those days were medical sleuths, relying largely on patients’ accounts of their symptoms to figure out where the tumor was. Dr. Cushing popularized an eye exam that took advantage of the specific ways in which different tumors can distort vision — a strategy used into the 1970s, when M.R.I.’s and other imaging tools replaced it. Even today, many tumors in the pituitary gland, which straddles the optic nerves, are initially detected because patients have trouble seeing.

Dr. Cushing also discovered that pituitary tumors could lead to vast changes in the body. Cushing’s disease and Cushing’s syndrome — two illnesses linked to hormones gone awry — are named for his discoveries.

Indeed, comparatively little progress has been made since Dr. Cushing’s time in actually prolonging life in brain-cancer patients. “It is fascinating how far we’ve come in terms of technology but not really in terms of progress for most malignancies,” Dr. Spencer said. “Everything we’ve done in the last 100 years has changed the progress for malignant brain tumors very little, extending life maybe eight months to two years.”

He added, though, that “in many tumors we are getting closer to the genetic understanding, and I’m optimistic in the next 10 years we will make a lot more progress.”

In addition to his medical achievements, Dr. Cushing won a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 for his biography of his mentor, Dr. William Osler. He devoted his life to his work, leaving little time to his five children. His three daughters gained notoriety for their marriages — one to James Roosevelt, a son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom she divorced, later marrying the publishing plutocrat John Hay Whitney; one to William Vincent Astor, heir to a $200 million fortune, whom she divorced, later marrying the painter James Whitney Fosburgh; and the youngest to the Standard Oil heir Stanley Mortimer Jr., whom she divorced, later marrying the CBS founder William S. Paley.

The collection expanded while he moved from Johns Hopkins to Harvard and eventually Yale, where they ended up in dusty storage bins before their recent $1.4 million restoration, partly paid for by money from a former patient’s family. The brains and their records were a “complete mess,” recalled Dr. Gil Solitaire, a professor of neuropathology at Yale in the 1960s who once shared an office with some of the Cushing paraphernalia. “Some were totally dehydrated, and the jars were cracked.”

In 1979, the specimens were moved from the bowels of the hospital to the basement of the medical school’s dorms. It was there that the students in the 1990s started a Brain Society — with membership extended to anyone who had the nerve to sneak into the dank basement, walk through the cluttered hall of brains and sign a poster, which now hangs in the Cushing Center.

“It was a rite of passage,” said Dr. Tara Bruce, now an obstetrician-gynecologist in Houston, who became a society member during her first year of medical school in 1994. “Everyone went to see the brains. It was surreal. I had just got to Yale and I remember thinking, ‘I guess Yale has so much great stuff that they can just shove a bunch of brains in the basement.’ ”

Dr. Christopher J. Wahl, an assistant professor of orthopedics and sports medicine at the University of Washington, wrote his thesis about the brains when he was a Yale medical student, stirring an interest in the restoration.
“The most incredible thing is that it’s not just the physical documentation of the founding days of neurosurgery but a social document,” Dr. Wahl said. “The bravery of these patients that really had nowhere to turn and this guy who was — cowboy is the wrong word, but an incredible innovator who was doing things at the right time and place.”

The Cushing collection in the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library at Yale University at 333 Cedar Street, New Haven, is open to the public Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. (203) 785-5352.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Apathy and Pituitary Disease: It Has Nothing to Do With Depression

For the regular readers of this blog, you know that I may be more bothered by my languishing mental acuity than changes to my body. As my previous two posts show, my body has faced significant changes. Truthfully, I am bothered by both, rightly so.

I want to share a medical article Susan posted today. She is an active member of the message boards. We frequently share peer-reviewed medical literature, always in an attempt to understand our disease better. These "Cushies" know more about Cushing's than many, MANY endocrinologists.

I encourage you to click through and read the article below. I will excerpt a few passages here.
Apathy and Pituitary Disease: It Has Nothing to Do With Depression.
J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 17:159-166, May 2005. Michael A. Weitzner, M.D., Steven Kanfer, M.D. and Margaret Booth-Jones, Ph.D. Tampa, Florida. © 2005 American Psychiatric Press, Inc.


Increasingly, patients with pituitary disease are evaluated and treated at cancer centers. In many ways, these patients resemble patients with other malignant brain tumors. Although the majority of pituitary adenomas are benign, the physical, emotional, and cognitive changes that these patients experience on their well-being is malignant. Pituitary disease causes a variety of physical illnesses resulting from the alterations in the hypothalamic-pituitary-end organ axis. In addition, patients with pituitary diseases may experience many emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, behavioral disturbances, and personality changes, above and beyond the many reactions these patients may have to the myriad of adjustments that they must make in their lives. There is a growing understanding that pituitary patients may experience these emotional problems as a result of long-term effects that the pituitary tumor itself, treatment, and/or hormonal changes have on the hypothalamic-pituitary-end organ axis. The authors present a series of cases, in which patients with pituitary disease were diagnosed and treated for depression and showed little response to the treatment for depression. When the diagnosis of apathy syndrome was considered and treatment implemented, the patients’ condition improved. A review of the literature on apathy, hypothalamic-pituitary-end organ axis dysfunction, and treatment for apathy syndrome is included.


Case 4 (BLOGGER NOTE: This is totally me! I moved it to the top spot because this is a "cushie.")
Ms. D is a 36-year-old married Anglo woman, employed as a nurse, diagnosed with an ACTH-producing pituitary microadenoma in 1992. She was treated surgically following a brief period of hormone deficiency. At the time of her psychiatric assessment, however, she had regained full hormonal function. Ms. D reported that since regaining her hormonal function she noticed some "dragginess." She reported there were times when she did not feel very motivated, and she thought that it took much more energy for her to do her normal activities. She reported that when she would take pseudoephedrine for sinus problems, she would see things "with more clarity" and that she would be able to be more focused in her attention and her ability to complete her tasks. Otherwise she tended to procrastinate and get distracted from various tasks.

Case 1
Mr. A is a 48 year-old Anglo lawyer and architect, diagnosed with a pituitary adenoma (clinically nonfunctioning) and treated with a transsphenoidal resection in 1997. He first noted memory problems in 1991 that worsened over the years, causing problems such as concentration and focused attention. He reported problems such as getting lost in familiar places and forgetting the names of people he had known for many years. He believed his thinking process was slow and he was "not as quick on the uptake" as before. He reported that he had an excellent memory, never having to use a reminder book of any kind prior to these symptoms.

Case 2
Ms. B is a 55-year-old Anglo homemaker with a history of a prolactinoma, diagnosed 15 years before her psychiatric evaluation. She reported that her symptoms of the tumor were primarily mood swings, headache, and loss of menstrual periods. She underwent surgery followed by radiation therapy, ultimately developing panhypopituitarism. Since then, she has been managed on hormone replacement, but she began to notice short-term memory difficulties. She reported difficulty finding the right words to express her thoughts. She also noticed difficulty in concentration and focused attention. She reported occasional fatigue and depressed feelings. She reported intermittent suicidal thoughts when she reported the depressed mood, but no active plans of suicide were reported during those times.

Case 3
Ms C. is a 47-year-old Anglo woman, employed as a management supervisor and diagnosed with a pituitary macroadenoma (clinically nonfunctioning) in 1994. She underwent transfrontal surgical resection and did not receive any postoperative radiation treatment but did develop panhypopituitarism. Since 1996, several changes in her behavior and personality were noted. Prior to the tumor she was a very active person. She was able to do very well at work and maintain a leadership position. She could do multiple tasks at once and received a lot of satisfaction from her work. However, after her surgery and recovery, she noticed that she was no longer able to multitask. She was deriving less satisfaction from her work and experienced transient periods of sadness. However, she was most concerned about her lack of energy and motivation. When she was able to work, she had to organize her activities very thoroughly and continuously write down everything in order not to forget what her tasks were. It took a lot of mental energy to function, and after work she would often need to take a 2-hour nap when she returned home. She showed no motivation to adequately take care of her home, including normal household chores. She reported she was not able to muster up much enthusiasm to interact with her grandchild because she was concerned about her energy and drive.

OH YEAH: There was one other time I felt skinny

Cushing's and its related hormonal imbalances have led me to gain 100 pounds in about 5 years. That's difficult on a self-esteem. Recently, I liked what I saw in the mirror.

Boston, Massachusetts, May 2010


Austin, TX, July 2010


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WANNA LOOK LITTLE: Get next to something bigger!

Some days, I don't care. I am going to do something fun. When I saw this hippo in a small Texas town, I knew the hippo people put those steps there for a reason. I tell you what... I've never felt skinnier!


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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tell me all about yourself

Hi there. Soooo much has happened, and I am really late getting all of it posted here. In the meantime, I found something I wrote back in 2007 on the Cushing's message boards. Sadly, I feel the same way today. Maybe soon, I'll start to feel better.

It is difficult to see your body change when you are doing nothing to provoke it.
It is difficult to see your body betray you.
It is difficult to admit that your body is no longer your own.

So, while I'm getting my ducks in a row to update and share lots of good Cushing's info, maybe you can tell me more about YOU. Who are you, and why do you follow me on this blog?

I would love to have some guest moxie posters. Email me at moxiemelissa at symbol, and tell me your story. I would love to post it here to share with others. If that is okay, please be sure to let me know in your email.

Have a good weekend.