Science non-fiction at the movies

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

photo of John Salamone

John Salamone

If you think that you probably wouldn’t hear about scientific research at an indie moviehouse, think again.

John Salamone, psychologist at UConn and self-proclaimed film buff, spoke recently at the Real Art Ways movie house in Hartford before a screening of one of his favorite movies, the 1990 film “Awakenings” starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams.

The talk is part of a series called Science on Screen that will feature UConn researchers helping to explain scientific concepts in popular movies.

The film, says Salamone, is one of the closest-to-life depictions of the types of diseases he studies.

“I tend to try to find problems with films,” jokes the professor. “But this has always been one of my favorite movies. They coached the actors really well to show the symptoms of the disease, and Robert DeNiro does an amazing job.”

A neuroscientist, Salamone studies the neurotransmitter dopamine and its role in brain function, motor coordination and motivation. Problems with dopamine are at the root of Parkinson’s disease, which Salamone has studied extensively, and a lesser-known disease called encephalitis lethargica, which is the focus of the film.

Based on the true story of physician and neurologist Oliver Sacks, “Awakenings” chronicles the life of patients who were struck with encephalitis lethargica during and after World War I, in the 1920s and 30s. The disease triggered an inflammation of the brain that at the time was irreversible, killing many and causing others to sleep for long periods, or display psychotic behaviors – two are even known to have poked out their own eyes and pulled out all their teeth. The survivors eventually became immobilized and catatonic, with very little interaction with the outside world.

The film takes place in 1969, when many of these patients have been institutionalized and unresponsive for decades. Robin Williams portrays Sacks, who learns about a new drug, called L-DOPA, that is found to relieve some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. He tries the drug on his post-encephalitic patients in a hospital, including an especially affected patient played by Robert DeNiro who, to everyone’s astonishment, temporarily regains near-perfect command of his faculties.

Because of these astounding and sudden effects, Salamone says that L-DOPA was heralded as a “miracle drug” when it first came into use. L-DOPA is a precursor to dopamine, he explains, and it is converted into dopamine by an enzyme in the brain; this partially restores levels of dopamine in the affected brain areas.

“It was really remarkable,” says Salamone. “People were moving around for the first time in 30 years. They were laughing, giggling, leaving the hospital. It did seem like a miracle.”

The 1950s and 60s were a time of great advances in psychiatry, says Salamone, earning the period the descriptor “the psychopharmacology revolution.” This golden age produced many drugs that are still in use today, from treatments for schizophrenia to anti-anxiety medications.

“People were really starting to figure out the brain’s chemistry and how it works,” he says.

The amazing thing about this affliction’s history, says Salamone, is the way the timing unfolded. In the 1920s, scientists had no idea what caused encephalitis lethargica or how to treat it. Thirty years later, although there were very few new cases of the disease, modern medicine was able to help those who survived it.

But as the movie depicts in heartbreaking detail, the effects of the drug were short-lived. Despite increasing doses of the drug, after a few months Robert DeNiro’s character became increasingly paranoid, developed facial tics and body spasms, and eventually deteriorated into his former catatonic state.

Salamone says that these drugs are likely only short-term fixes because the disease continues to progress, or the brain reacts to the drug by altering its physiology.

“It’s partly a cautionary tale,” says Salamone. “If you have nothing to treat a disorder, a drug like this can initially seem like a miracle. But it’s not, and that’s why research always continues.”

Even today, the exact cause of encephalitis lethargica is unclear. Among other hypotheses, Some doctors think it had to do with the influenza epidemic of 1918. But because the disease faded from prominence without a cure, Salamone says it’s especially important to prevent it from being forgotten.

In his courses, especially his large, 350-person lecture on drugs and behavior, Salamone says he always gives historical background about the disorders he discusses before talking about the current research.  When you have that context, he says, that’s the way you can truly understand the field and how treatments are developed.

“You’d hate to think that this history would be forgotten,” he says. “There’s a creative process behind medicine, and you see that in the film. They say, ‘Could we try this?’ It shows people the process, and that throughout history, there will always be a lot of uncertainty in science.”

Future Science on Screen talks at Real Art Ways will include physicist Ron Mallett talking about “The Time Machine” on Tuesday, May 8, and mathematician Jim Bridgeman talking about “Double Indemnity” on Tuesday, June 12. Learn more here.

To see a trailer of the movie, click here.

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