Barnes-Jewish Hospital | Washington University Physicians
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interviews from the inside

THE BRAIN GEEKS

BY PAM MCGRATH
PHOTOS BY JAY FRAM

Eric Leuthardt, MD, and Albert Kim, MD, PhD, frequently engage in long talks together about the brain and the yet-to-be-solved mysteries of this complicated organ. Because both men are Washington University neurosurgeons treating patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Siteman Cancer Center, it could be assumed these conversations are a natural consequence of their mutual profession.

ALBERT KIM, MD, PHD, and ERIC LEUTHARDT, MD
ALBERT KIM, MD, PHD, AT LEFT; ERIC LEUTHARDT, MD, AT RIGHT

In truth, Leuthardt and Kim share an intense fascination with neuroscience. They readily admit to being geeks whose enthusiasms for pondering the brain’s wonders have led them to paths most neurosurgeons don’t walk. This divergence began with a jointly presented community-education talk about neuroscience that eventually became a one-act play called BrainWorks. During this theatrical exploration, the two neurosurgeons became the audience’s on-stage guides as an actor playing a patient with a brain tumor underwent diagnosis and treatment. Rebroadcast on KETC-TV, the play won a 2016 Mid-America Emmy Award. That success encouraged Leuthardt and Kim to develop—and act in—a second BrainWorks production. The 2019 performance featured four one-act plays about people facing diagnoses of Alzheimer’s disease, a brain tumor, stroke and epilepsy. Plans are now underway to transform the plays into a four-episode series for a national PBS audience. Kim and Leuthardt also record a podcast called Brain Coffee, which is produced by Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

In a recent interview, Leuthardt and Kim talked about their connection with each other, their commitment to caring for patients and their interest in engaging a community audience, most of whom likely have experienced brain-related diseases personally or through family or friends.

You obviously are close friends. How did your relationship develop?

Leuthardt: We became fast friends pretty quickly after first meeting. Our initial connection was the work we do caring for people who come to us for treatment. But we also discovered that we both think about the brain with wonder and gravity. And our friendship is a nice balance of personalities. Albert is a calmer, more even-keeled individual, while I am more outwardly passionate. I encourage Albert to do things he might not normally do, and he keeps me grounded. It’s that balance that makes our friendship effective and productive, and fosters new undertakings.

THE MORE PEOPLE UNDERSTAND HOW HEALTHY BRAINS WORK AND WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SOMETHING GOES WRONG, THE BETTER CHOICES THEY CAN MAKE ABOUT THEIR OWN HEALTH.

ALBERT KIM, MD, PHD

Kim: We did have that initial common ground in patient care and neuroscience. Wide swaths of our lives are very similar, actually. That’s especially true in the amount of time each of us spends thinking about the brain: how it works and what happens when something goes wrong.

At the same time, we’re a bit of an odd couple. Our perspectives are different in terms of scale. Eric tends to think about the brain on a macro level; he looks at it as a network and is interested in how its regions interact and relate to function and behavior. I tend to take a more micro view; my focus is on molecules and genes, and how tumor cells evolve genetically and epigenetically through time and space. Like Eric, I focus on how parts of the brain communicate or interact, but I’m more interested in the dance of molecules and cells. Eric likes to innovate through engineering. I like to innovate through molecules.

The intersection between his interests and mine is the sweet spot that makes our conversations and friendship interesting and meaningful.

Why do you think creative educational endeavors like BrainWorks and the Brain Coffee podcasts are important?

Kim: First, I believe that the more people understand about the ways healthy brains work and what happens when something goes wrong, the better choices they can make about their own health. For example, the script for our latest BrainWorks production included answers to the questions our patients ask us most often. We gave the audience a 360-degree view of what happens to a brain affected by epilepsy and stroke. And the plays looked at the brain and disease from various perspectives—patient, caregiver, doctor, researcher—to help people imagine each situation more fully.

And second, we want to share our enthusiasm for the brain, which is endlessly fascinating. Eric and I want to spark curiosity in others, to encourage them to be as fascinated as we are. Though we know a lot about the brain, there’s a lot we don’t yet know. Quite frankly, brain research is a lot like space exploration; we want answers to the unknowns.

WE WANT TO MAKE AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION, WHETHER THAT’S WITH A RECORDING, IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE OR TALKING TO A PATIENT IN A MEANINGFUL WAY.”

ERIC LEUTHARDT, MD

Leuthardt: BrainWorks and Brain Coffee also have a philanthropic aspect that has made a significant difference in our ability to improve patient care. For instance, a generous gift from one audience member supported the study of artificial intelligence to improve brain mapping for patients with brain tumors. As a result of this research, we now have an algorithm that allows us to do rapid, high-quality brain mapping, and we use it for all of our patients. That gift was an unexpected but greatly appreciated outcome from our first BrainWorks production.

How has your collaboration on these projects helped make you better physicians?

Leuthardt: It’s made us better able to communicate with our patients and their families. We’ve learned through writing plays and podcast scripts that, though we’re geeks who love to get into the weeds, the point is to make the topic meaningful and approachable. While it might be easy for us to rely on technical language we might be comfortable with, that won’t engage people or help them understand a diagnosis and plan for treatment. To communicate, we need to make an emotional connection, whether that’s through a recording, in front of an audience or talking with patients and families.

Kim: I agree with Eric. And I’ll add that these projects, especially our second BrainWorks program and the responses we received, serve as valuable reminders of why we chose our professions. The day after the final night of BrainWorks 2.0, I was back in the lab, talking to my research team about the importance of pushing forward because we have an opportunity to make people’s lives better.

I also believe the idea of connectivity permeates these projects and is a fundamental theme for our work in neuroscience. Here’s what I mean: Neurons in the brain connect and form networks that then connect to form additional networks. People carry these connections with them as they connect with other people. On a deep level, disease disrupts connections. That’s really what we are talking about in all these programs: the connectivity among cells, the connectivity among people, and how disease disrupts that connectivity.

A last question: Have you given any thought to changing careers and becoming actors?

Kim: BrainWorks and Brain Coffee have been mind-opening experiences for both of us. But I think Eric and I agree that, while it’s completely reasonable for an actor to play a neurosurgeon, it’s pretty unreasonable for a neurosurgeon to become an actor.

Leuthardt: We think it’s fun, it’s a great experience, it fosters creativity and activates a different part of the brain, which I think is good for our mental health. But we remain focused on the people who come to us for care. That’s the day job that really makes a difference.

Listen to Brain Coffee: barnesjewish.org/the-brain-coffee-podcast

Watch BrainWorks: barnesjewish.org/neurology-neurosurgery/brainworks


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