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Reid Thompson, M.D., talks about the mysteries of the human brain at last weekend’s TEDx Nashville conference downtown. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Thompson details brain’s wonders at TEDxNashville

BY: CYNTHIA FLOYD MANLEY

4/14/2011 - The do-it-yourself rocket scientist from Alabama was a tough act to follow at Saturday's TEDxNashville, but Reid Thompson, M.D., pulled it off, wowing the packed performance hall with the “sense of wonder” that he finds every day in the operating room.

“I remember vividly the first time I touched a human brain,” began Thompson, William F. Meacham Professor and chair of Neurosurgery, recalling a surgery during his training on a young boy with a brain tumor.

“Within 30 minutes, he was up and playing video games. I knew then that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Sometimes when I'm in the operating room, I just stop in awe of the brain's beauty.”

“A Sense of Wonder” was the theme for the second annual TEDx Nashville, held Saturday at Tennessee Performing Arts Center. TEDx events are locally organized conferences patterned after TED (Technology, Education and Design), a global series of conferences begun in 1984 to promote “Ideas Worth Sharing.”

Thompson was among an eclectic group of presenters that included an actress (Ashley Judd); singer/songwriters; musicians; authors; poets; a dance critic; educators; artists; a NASA scientist (who almost didn't make it because of the threatened government shutdown); and a photographer, among others. The DIY rocket scientist, Tim Pickens, has landed on “The Daily Show” with his rocket-power bikes made from PVC pipe.

TEDx talks are brief and fast-paced — 18 minutes long. In his, Thompson drew the connection between art, science and the brain, noting that Michelangelo tucked images of the brain into his work in the Sistine Chapel.

Two examples: God superimposed over the human brain in “Creation of Adam” and the brain stem implanted in God's neck in “Separation of Light from Darkness.”

Thompson recalled a songwriter with a tumor near the Brocas area, which controls speech. “She had been unable to put emotion in words and words into song,” he said. “After she woke up in the ICU, she asked for some paper, and wrote several beautiful songs that had been trapped. We were able to release that, and she was able to flow again, putting her artistry into words.”

And he gave the crowd a glimpse of the leading edge of neurosurgery, including new 3-D imaging, steerable needles, robotics, micro-stenting of capillaries and deep brain stimulation for mood disorders.

Thompson brought his self-deprecating sense of humor to the stage as well. His remark that “you have to be really smart to do deep-brain stimulation — I just do brain tumors” sparked not only laughter in real-time but several “best quote of the day” messages by the “TEDsters” on Twitter.

You can learn more at TEDxNashville.com.This year's conference built on the 2010 program titled “Art + Science: The Future of Health,” which included a presentation by Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, about the personalization of health care. You can view Balser's talk on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63XCKg5utuo.

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