My Neuro Hero

  • November 10, 2009
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Dr. Robert Sapolsky and friend

I stumbled upon Professor Robert Sapolsky’s lecture series at a local library. His presentations gave me an amazing understanding of stress.

Dr. Sapolsky, a MacArthur Fellow and a professor at Stanford University, spends each summer in Kenya studying a population of wild baboons, trying to identify the relationship between an animal’s personality, environment and stress levels. What Dr. Sapolsky has discovered is that low-ranking baboons are more stressed than, say, alpha males. Those marginalized animals have an increased risk of hypertension, atherosclerosis, diabetes, immune suppression, reproductive impairments and affective disorders.

So if you are a baboon, the lower you rank in the social hierarchy, the more likely you are to get sick from stress-related illnesses. Same goes for humans, he says.

Later, I discovered his books. How could you not love a guy who has written titles like The Trouble with Testosterone, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and A Primate’s Memoir? In A Primate’s Memoir, I learned that Dr. Sapolsky, who has been called a cross between Oliver Sacks and a vaudeville comedian, is an entertaining writer.

Here, he describes how, after 20 years of shooting baboons with anesthetic so that he can collect blood samples, darting remains in his blood: “The other night I was at the movies and watched some matron amble down the aisle past me, and my first thought was 85-90 kilos, 9 cc’s of anesthetic. Go for her rump, lots of meat. Her husband will probably defend her when she goes down, but he has small canines.”

This National Geographic special, Stress: Portrait of a Killer, serves as a crash course of his findings:

Stress: Portrait of a Killer

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