After a Diagnosis, Patients Are Finding Solace—and Empowerment—in a Sensitive Corner of Social Media
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
When Kimberly Richardson of Chicago underwent chemotherapy in 2013 for ovarian cancer, her hip began to hurt. Her doctor assigned six months of physical therapy, but the pain persisted.
She took the mystery to Facebook, where she got 200 comments from cancer survivors all pointing to the same solution: Claritin. Two days after starting the antihistamine, her hip felt fine. Claritin, it turns out, reduces bone marrow swelling, a side effect of a stimulant given after chemo.
Richardson isn't alone in using social media for health. Thirty-six percent of adults with chronic diseases have benefited from health advice on the internet, or know others who have. The trend has likely accelerated during COVID-19. "With increases in anxiety and loneliness, patients find comfort in peer support," said Chris Renfro-Wallace, the chief operating officer of PatientsLikeMe, a popular online community.
Sites like PatientsLikeMe and several others are giving rise to a patient-centered view of healthcare, challenging the idea that MD stands for medical deity. They're engaging people in new ways, such as virtual clinical trials. But with misinformation spreading online about health issues, including COVID-19, there's also reason for caution.
Engaged by Design
Following her diagnosis at age 50, Richardson searched the Web. "All I saw were infographics saying in five years I'd be dead."
Eventually, she found her Facebook groups and a site called Inspire, where she met others with her rare granulosa cell tumor. "You get 15 minutes with your doctor, but on social media you can keep posting until you satisfy your question."
Virtual communities may be especially helpful for people with rarely diagnosed diseases, who wouldn't otherwise meet. When Katherine Leon of Virginia suffered chest pain after the birth of her second son, doctors said it was spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, involving a torn artery. But she had no risk factors for heart disease. Feeling like she was "wandering in the woods" with doctors who hadn't experienced her situation, she searched online and stumbled on communities like Inspire with members who had. The experience led her to start her own Alliance and the world's largest registry for advancing research on SCAD.
"Inspire is really an extension of yourself," she said. If designed well, online sites can foster what psychologist Keith Sawyer called group mind, a dynamic where participants balance their own voices with listening to others, maximizing community engagement in health. To achieve it, participants must have what Sawyer called a "blending of egos," which may be fostered when sites let users post anonymously. They must also share goals and open communication. The latter priority has driven Brian Loew, Inspire's CEO, to safeguard the privacy of health information exchanged on the site, often asking himself, "Would I be okay if a family member had this experience?"
The vibe isn't so familial on some of Facebook's health-focused groups. There, people might sense marketers and insurers peering over their shoulders. In 2018, a researcher discovered that companies could exploit personal information on a private Facebook community for BRCA-positive women. Members of the group started a nonprofit, the Light Collective, to help peer-to-peer support platforms improve their transparency.
PatientsLikeMe and Inspire nurture the shared experience by hosting pages on scores of diseases, allowing people to better understand treatment options for multiple conditions—and find others facing the same set of issues. Four in ten American adults have more than one chronic disease.
Sawyer observed that groups are further engaged when there's a baseline of common knowledge. To that end, some platforms take care in structuring dialogues among members to promote high-quality information, stepping in to moderate when necessary. On Inspire, members get emails when others reply to their posts, instead of instant messaging. The communication lag allows staff to notice misinformation and correct it. Facebook conversations occur in real-time among many more people; "moderation is almost impossible," said Leon.
Even on PatientsLikeMe and Inspire, deciding which content to police can be tough, as variations across individuals may result in conflicting but equally valid posts. Leon's left main artery was 90 percent blocked, requiring open heart surgery, whereas others with SCAD have angina, warranting a different approach. "It's a real range of experience," she explained. "That's probably the biggest challenge: supporting everyone where they are."
Critically, these sites don't treat illnesses. "If a member asks a medical question, we typically tell them to go to their doctor," said Loew, the Inspire CEO.
Increasingly, it may be the other way around.
The Patient Will See You Now
"Some doctors embrace the idea of an educated patient," said Loew. "The more information, the better." Others, he said, aren't thrilled about patients learning on their own.
"Doctors were behind the eight ball," said Shikha Jain, an oncologist in Chicago. "We were encouraged for years to avoid social media due to patient privacy issues. There's been a drastic shift in the last few years."
Jain recently co-founded IMPACT, a grassroots organization that networks with healthcare workers across Illinois for greater awareness of health issues. She thinks doctors must meet patients where they are—increasingly, online—and learn about the various platforms where patients connect. Doctors can then suggest credible online sources for their patients' conditions. Learning about different sites takes time, Jain said, "but that's the nature of being a physician in this day and age."
At stake is the efficiency of doctor-patient interactions. "I like when patients bring in research," Jain said. "It opens up the dialogue and lets them inform the decision-making process." Richardson, the cancer survivor, agreed. "We shouldn't make the physician the villain in this conversation." Interviewed over Zoom, she was engaging but quick to challenge the assumptions behind some questions; her toughness was palpable, molded by years of fighting disease—and the healthcare system. Many doctors are forced by that system into faster office visits, she said. "If patients help their doctor get to the heart of the issue in a shorter time, now we're going down a narrower road of tests."
These conversations could be enhanced by PatientsLikeMe's Doctor Visit Guide. It uses algorithms to consolidate health data that members track on the site into a short report they can share with their physicians. "It gives the doctor a richer data set to really see how a person has been doing," said Renfro-Wallace.
Doctors aren't the only ones benefiting from these sites.
A few platforms like Inspire make money by connecting their members to drug companies, so they can participate in the companies' clinical trials to test out new therapies. A cynic might say the sites are just fronts for promoting the pharmaceuticals.
The need is real, though, as many clinical trials suffer from low participation, and the experimental treatments can improve health. The key for Loew, Inspire's CEO, is being transparent about his revenue model. "When you sign up, we assume you didn't read the fine print [in the terms of agreement]." So, when Inspire tells members about openings in trials, it's a reminder the site works with pharma.
"When I was first on Inspire, all of that was invisible to me," said Leon. "It didn't dawn on me for years." Richardson believes many don't notice pharma's involvement because they're preoccupied by their medical issues.
One way Inspire builds trust is by partnering with patient advocacy groups, which tend to be nonprofit and science-oriented, said Craig Lipset, the former head of clinical innovation for Pfizer. When he developed a rare lung disease, he joined the board of a foundation that partners with Inspire's platform. The section dedicated to his disease is emblazoned with his foundation's logo and colors. Contrast that with other sites that build communities at the direct behest of drug companies, he said.
Insurance companies are also eyeing these communities. Last month, PatientsLikeMe raised $26 million in financing from investors including Optum Ventures, which belongs to the same health care company that owns a leading health insurance company, UnitedHealthcare. PatientsLikeMe is an independent company, though, and data is shared with UnitedHealth only if patients provide consent. The site is using the influx of resources to gamify improvements in health, resembling programs run by UnitedHealth that assign nutrition and fitness "missions," with apps for tracking progress. Soon, PatientsLikeMe will roll out a smarter data tracking system that gives members actionable insights and prompts them to take actions based on their conditions, as well as competitions to motivate healthier behaviors.
Such as a race to vaccinate, perhaps.
Dealing with Misinformation
An advantage of health-focused communities is the intimacy of their gatherings, compared to behemoths like Facebook. Loew, Inspire's head, is mindful of Dunbar's rule: humans can manage only about 150 friends. Inspire's social network mapping suggests many connections among members, but of different strength; Loew hopes to keep his site's familial ambiance even while expanding membership. Renfro-Wallace is exploring video and voice-only meetings to enrich the shared experiences on PatientsLikeMe, while respecting members' privacy.
But a main driver of growth and engagement online is appealing to emotion rather than reason; witness Facebook during the pandemic. "We know that misinformation and scary things spread far more rapidly than something positive," said Ann Lewandowski, the executive director of Wisconsin Immunization Neighborhood, a coalition of health providers and associations countering vaccine hesitancy across the state.
"Facebook's moderation mechanism is terrible," she said. Vaccine advocates in her region who try to flag misinformation on Facebook often have their content removed because the site's algorithm associates their posts with the distortions they're trying to warn people about.
In the realm of health, where accessing facts can mean life or death—and where ad-based revenue models conflict with privacy needs—there's probably a ceiling on how large social media sites should scale. Loew views Inspire as co-existing, not competing with Facebook.
Propagandists had months to perfect campaigns to dissuade people from mRNA vaccines. But even Lewandowski's doctor was misinformed about vaccine side effects for her condition, multiple sclerosis. She sees potential for health-focused sites to convene more virtual forums, in which patient advocacy groups educate doctors and patients on vaccine safety.
Inspire is raising awareness about COVID vaccines through a member survey with an interactive data visualization. Sampling thousands of members, the survey found vaccines are tolerated well among patients with cancer, autoimmune issues, and other serious conditions. Analytics for online groups are evolving quickly, said Lipset. "Think about the acceleration in research when you take the emerging capability for aggregating health data and mash it up with patients engaged in sharing."
Lipset recently co-founded the Decentralized Trials and Research Alliance to accelerate clinical trials and make them more accessible to patients—even from home, without risking the virus. Sites like PatientsLikeMe share this commitment, collaborating with Duke's ALS Clinic to let patients join a trial from home with just two clinic visits. Synthetic control groups were created by PatientsLikeMe's algorithms, eliminating the need for a placebo arm, enabling faster results.
As for Richardson, the ovarian cancer patient, being online has given her another type of access—to experts. She was diagnosed this year with breast cancer. "This time is totally different," she said. On Twitter, she's been direct messaging cancer researchers, whose replies have informed her disease-management strategy. When her oncologists prescribed 33 radiation treatments, she counter-proposed upping the dosage over fewer treatments. Her doctors agreed, cutting unnecessary trips from home. "I'm immuno-compromised," she said. "It's like Russian roulette. You're crossing your finger you won't get the virus."
After years of sticking up for her own health, Richardson is now positioned to look out for others. She collaborated with the University of Illinois Cancer Center on a training module that lets patients take control of their health. She's sharing it online, in a virtual community near you. "It helps you make intelligent decisions," she said. "When you speak your physician's language, it shifts the power in the room."
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.