Oct. 27, 2009

Being a doctor can be 'really disgusting,' but rewards are unsurpassable, says Weill neurosurgeon

Being a neurosurgeon is like being a trained athlete, in that one must have the ability to stay focused for long periods of time, said Dr. Michael Kaplitt in a talk Oct. 20 in Goldwin Smith Hall.

Kaplitt, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, discussed his career and research, which has included developing such novel neurosurgical procedures as gene therapy for Parkinson's disease. His rigorous schedule involves long hours and hard work, he said, though "your body gets used to it."

Learning a surgical specialty, he said, is a slow process in which students perform increasingly difficult parts of progressively complex surgeries until they are able to do the entire operation on their own.

As for medical school, "it's really not that tough," he said. Residency, he said, is the hardest part of earning a medical degree; "it's not like 'Grey's Anatomy.'" He was often thrown up on and bled upon during his seven-year residency, he said. It's "really, really disgusting and really, really tough. Others will get paid a lot more for doing a lot less," but, he added, "if it's what you want to do, then there's nothing better than saving someone's life."

Kaplitt's career has involved research and neurosurgery, even though "It's really hard to do both research and medicine" because no one believes that you are serious about either. Because research and medicine take up nearly all of Kaplitt's day, he said he often spends his free time at night or on weekends writing scientific papers or applying for grants.

Kaplitt said he was introduced to gene therapy during his postdoctoral work and has been working to apply it to Parkinson's disease, which is caused by the mysterious death of brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. Without dopamine, neurons continually fire, resulting in increasingly severe tremors and uncontrollable movements. These seizures eventually leave victims helpless, who ultimately die of such complications as respiratory failure.

Kaplitt has developed a new technique that involves injecting a gene-laden virus into the part of the brain responsible for dopamine production. The virus is harmless, but it introduces a gene that stimulates cells to produce dopamine, which can significantly reduce symptoms. Kaplitt is also researching the viability of gene therapy to treat drug addiction, obesity and severe pain.

Kaplitt's talk was sponsored by the Cornell Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience and the Student Health Alliance at Cornell.

Pelle Rudstam '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.