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7:00 PM


Is It All in Your Head? Neuroscience, Belief and Illness
What we can learn from the neuroscience of placebo and psychogenic movement disorders. 

Karen Rommelfanger
Director, Neuroethics Program of the Center for Ethics
Emory University

Constituting one of the largest populations of patients who visit general practitioners, one in five patients are affected by “medically unexplained illnesses” (MUS). Patients with MUS present physical symptoms, but lack a detectable “organic” pathology, and are generally considered to be psychological in origin, leaving many patients to feel that they are being told their symptoms are “all in your head.”

The challenges in diagnosing and treating MUS are largely a consequence of concepts that “real” medicine works by a physiological mechanism for “real” disorders with known physiological origin, affecting the body; whereas, treatments or conditions with a psychological origin are non-physiological or non-specific and are somehow considered less “real” and perhaps, “all in your head.” However, advances in neuroscience continue to remind us that there is no bright line, but a gray zone, between the mental and the physical.

In this talk, neuroscientist and neuroethicist, Karen Rommelfanger, will use a neurological disorder paradigmatic of MUS, psychogenic movement disorders (a movement disorder often considered to have a mechanism rooted in a “belief” in being sick), and placebo therapy, (an intervention often considered to have a mechanism rooted in a “belief” in getting well) to demonstrate how neuroscience might inform healthcare for conditions and treatments exemplary of this gray zone.

About our speaker
Karen S. Rommelfanger, PhD is trained as a movement disorders neuroscientist. At Emory University, she serves as the Neuroethics Program Director at the Center for Ethics and is a Fellow in the Scholars Program for Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Research in the Department of Neurology where she conducts research on placebo therapy and psychogenic movement disorders. She also serves as the Neuroscience Editor-in-Residence at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience.

Karen believes that neuroethics discussions are critical for academics and general audiences alike in order to ensure maximal benefit of neuroscience discoveries for society.

Image upper right: Prescription placebos used in research and practice (NIH).

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