At neuroscience summer camp, teens learn about mental health

High school students from around the country learned about topics ranging from the neuropsychiatry of HIV to molecular genetics, forensic psychiatry, eating disorders, hoarding and virtual-reality therapeutics.

- By Ruth Schechter

Local high school students Alia Rubaie and Gaby Krohn model brains out of Play-Doh during the Clinical Neuroscience Internship Experience.
Norbert von der Groeben

The teenagers pushed aside their backpacks, adjusted their sweatshirts and looked up at the imposing man in a white coat at the front of the room. He scanned the room and started to pepper his young audience with questions: How many of you wake up tired? How many of you skip sleep to work on homework? How many of you go to sleep after your parents? How many want more sleep?

For each question, every hand in the room shot up.

The class, taught by Rafael Pelayo, MD, a pediatric sleep specialist with the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine and a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, was part of the Clinical Neuroscience Internship Experience, or CNI-X, a weeklong immersion in the clinical and scientific research taking place in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. More than 100 high school students from around the country attended the program this summer on the Stanford campus.

“With CNI-X, our faculty are taking the most direct route to the future — by introducing incredibly bright, motivated young people to the excitement and diversity of clinical neuroscience,” said program co-director Laura Roberts, MD, MA, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and chief of the psychiatry service at Stanford Health Care. “We introduce novel science to the interns, and they drive the discussion forward and yet also move quickly to issues of social justice and humanity. My guess is that in several years we will see some of these students in our medical school classrooms.”

Students participated in sessions on topics ranging from the neuropsychiatry of HIV to molecular genetics, forensic psychiatry, eating disorders, hoarding and virtual-reality therapeutics. Class formats ranged from introductory seminars to hands-on workshops and laboratory tours.

“The program is designed to build early interest in medicine and psychiatry, destigmatize mental illness and spread knowledge about mental health,” said CNI-X co-director Alan Louie, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and director of education for the department. “Starting with high-school-age students also allows us to identify promising students interested in careers in mental health.”

Kendall Look of Los Altos, Muhammad Dhanani of Atlanta and Ananya Venkat of Houston were among the more than 100 students who participated in CNI-X this summer.
Norbert von der Groeben

Launched in 2015

CNI-X launched last summer with 20 teens heading into their senior year. They participated in a week and a half of sessions. Most were interested in medicine, psychology, law, bioengineering and other fields. Louie said he hoped that what they learned during the program would inform their future careers.

“There are not many programs like this being offered, and apparently there’s tremendous interest,” said Louie. “It benefits everyone when people are better informed about mental health.”

This year Louie and Roberts tweaked and expanded the CNI-X program, and 113 teens from throughout the Bay Area and as far away as Georgia, New York, Wyoming, Texas and Maryland, signed up. There were so many that they were broken into four groups, with classes repeated over two weeks to retain a small-group learning experience.

“I learned so much about neuroscience — I had no idea there were so many subspecialties,” said Houston native Ananya Venkat, 17, who was staying with relatives who lived nearby. “I was not considering medical school before, but this internship elucidated things for me. The brain is so complex.”

Psychiatrist Alan Louie teaches a class titled “Constructing the Human Brain.”
Norbert von der Groeben

Entertaining and educational

Pelayo was one of 25 department faculty members who volunteered to teach a 90-minute class four times over the two weeks. “Many of my adult patients trace the beginning of their sleep problems to adolescence. The societal pressure to sleep less has been increasing across all age groups, and it has health consequences that have been largely ignored,” he said. “Teenagers are very receptive to learning how their brain works, and sleep and dreams are topics they are particularly drawn to.”

Classes were formulated to be entertaining as well as educational. Participants got to try on virtual reality headsets, watch zebrafish populations used in genetic studies, observe videos of brain cell development and barter personal items to role-play hoarding behavior.

“We wanted the experience to address issues that are important and relevant to teens and present topics appropriate to their knowledge level,” Louie said.

One session, for example, represented symptoms of psychosis by having two students converse while a third whispered in one’s ear. The exercise is designed to build empathy by illustrating the distraction of hearing voices, said Kate Hardy, DClinPsy, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

“Some students said they found it hard to concentrate; others said the experience was scary or threatening. When I do this exercise with adults, it’s difficult to get them to respond. The teens got right into it,” Hardy said. “There’s a great benefit to exposing people at that age to the prevailing preconceptions of psychosis and reduce the stigma, even at a small scale.”

In another session, students observed Lawrence McGlynn, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, with a patient who had volunteered to share the experience of living with a stigmatizing condition. “The students were extraordinarily touched by the interaction and seeing the importance of a therapeutic relationship,” McGlynn said. “They showed tremendous respect and kindness during this session, which touched us all.”

Sustaining students’ attention

Pelayo said that the length of the classes allowed both teachers and students to delve more deeply into specific subjects. “Most high schools do not have 90-minute class sessions because it can be difficult to sustain their attention for that long,” he said. “Yet we could have gone much longer because sleep is a topic that is not covered in the school curriculum, and they understand that it affects them directly.”

When I do this exercise with adults, it’s difficult to get them to respond. The teens got right into it.

Students worked in teams to present a capstone project at the end of the program that incorporated lessons learned and personal interests. One team designed an app to warn caregivers in multiple languages when an Alzheimer’s patient is wandering. Another group created a Snapchat account with videos and stories about schizophrenia, using a first-person approach to educate users about the disorder. Another team presented a plan to create a website buddy system for caregivers of autistic children. Teams also gave presentations on whether music enhances cognitive processing, the difficulty of advocating for services for students with ADHD in schools and social and economic disparities in serious mental illness.

“I’ve learned so much, and it’s helped me to shift my career focus,” said Sachin Jaishankar, 15, who was also volunteering at hospitals in his home state of Arizona over the summer. “I wanted to spend part of my summer in a university learning environment, and now I’m definitely interested in shifting my focus to clinical neuroscience.”

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