Dr Hilary Blumberg MD – Women’s History Month and World Bipolar Day marked eloquently in one Amazing Woman in research
Since March is not only Women’s History Month, but also the month that plays host to World Bipolar Day (30 March), it’s the perfect time to learn more about one of MQ’s Science Council members, Dr Hilary Blumberg, whose career has focused on research into and other mood disorders.
Dr Blumberg is a psychiatrist, who has been working in research for almost 25 years at Yale and before that at Cornell. In her interview with MQ, she explained why her research is devoted to mood disorders.
“My work has had a focus on mood disorders because I find them very compelling to research… What is meaningful to me is trying to reduce suffering. Also knowing that there’s such a high risk of suicide that can go along with these conditions so helping persons with mood disorders is helping to save lives. That’s a big part of my motivation.”
But it’s not just the heroic nature of working in mental health research that gives Dr Blumberg such drive, it’s also the science. Dr Bumberg and researchers like her study the parts of the brain involved in emotions. She explains her fascination with studies of the brains of persons with Bipolar Disorder, and how one brain can lead to experiences of such different and varied moods.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with Bipolar Disorder, individuals who have the condition have depressive episodes but the hallmark of Bipolar Disorder is that they also have elevated mood episodes. These manic episodes are often described as an uncharacteristic “euphoria,” but the mood elevations can also be comprised by uncharacteristic irritability, feeling more energetic, sleeping less but not feeling tired, being far more active to the extent that it imposes disruptions on their life.
For Dr Blumberg, yes, there’s the suffering of individuals experiencing episodes of Bipolar Disorder that she wants to alleviate but also the suffering of family members and others around them. There’s also the compelling question: How can one brain experience depression and elevated mood episodes?
“With bipolar disorder, we have increasing evidence that it’s a disorder of the brain. Just like there are disorders of the heart and in the lungs, this is a disorder of the brain.”
Initially, Dr Blumberg used brain scanning research to understand the parts of the brain involved in mood disorders in adults. The next area she wanted to investigate was mood disorders at their onset in adolescence. Since Bipolar Disorder and other mood disorders tend to emerge during adolescence, studying young people could provide clues as to the causes and how the disorders develop and provide some opportunities for identifying early interventions, improving diagnosis and understanding the risk for worsening conditions and suicide.
This led Dr Blumberg to become one of the lead investigators of the MQ-supported HOPES project – Help Overcome and Prevent the Emergence of Suicide. For the HOPES consortium, MQ helped to bring together different investigators from all over the world, Dr Blumberg being an integral member. In this consortium, she worked with other researchers also devoted to suicide prevention, particularly in young people. These researchers also had an interest in the mood disorders Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder and also were using brain scanning methods.
The consortium came together to study adolescents with Bipolar Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder to bring together existing international data to learn more about the parts of the brain involved in suicidal thoughts and behaviours. The aim? To identify potential solutions to prevent suicide.
Research of the HOPE consortium has revealed risk factors, biological and psychosocial, as Dr Blumberg explains.
“Some things that have been highlighted from the study include the importance of preventing social risk factors and particularly exposure of children to maltreatment or other adverse events.” Blumberg and her team are discovering how “robust some talking therapies can be in improving the functioning of the brain circuitry that’s involved.”
Improvements and solutions are already being implemented. At Yale, Dr Blumberg and her team are now studying ways to help individuals identify patterns that can improve brain health and reduce risk factors for mood symptoms and suicide. “Regularizing sleep and other daily routines can be robust in helping to improve brain health and reducing suicide risk.”
“The opportunity to work on HOPES has been incredible and I’m very appreciative of MQ’s funding. There’s great hope from what has come out of the HOPES consortium.”
Clearly, the world of research needs more individuals like Dr Blumberg. And yet there’s still a lack of representation of women in STEM. Dr Blumberg feels it is “critical to support women and other groups underrepresented in STEM at every stage of their career.”
“I was fortunate. When I started to do research at 16 years old, I volunteered in a research lab and I had mentorship. It’s really important for potential mentors out there to support youths at the earliest stages, provide them with opportunities to enter the pipeline, and then support them throughout their careers.”
So, it being Women’s History Month, what advice can Dr Blumberg give to women wanting to get into STEM and make future history as women?
“Pursue your dreams. Believe in yourself and surround yourself by mentors and colleagues and other people who believe in you and support you.”
“There could be times when you feel discouraged, there will be failures along the way, papers that are rejected but it’s vital to persevere. If you really follow what you truly believe in, you’ll end up doing up doing your best and the other pieces will fall into place.”
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