The Brain Trainer: Dennis S. Charney, MD

Meet Dennis S. Charney, MD: Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean and Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Pharmacology and Systems Therapeutics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

The Brain Trainer
Dennis S. Charney, MD
Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean and Professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Pharmacology and Systems Therapeutics, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Psychiatry has come a long way since the beginnings of psychoanalysis in the 1890s. There have been new techniques for its study and new treatments, almost yearly, for those who suffer from mental disease. Yet preventive psychiatry—the branch that strivesto keep people from even having to suffer depression, anxiety, or other common disorders—has lagged behind.

Chappaqua’s Dennis Charney, MD, may be about to alter that, and he could well affect how you think about your brain in the process.

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Dr. Charney, the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz dean and professor of Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Pharmacology and Systems Therapeutics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, is co-author of Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012. The basic idea of the book is that everyday people can learn to respond to stress, whether it’s a burned dinner or traumatic grief, in healthier ways.

“Every one of us loses a loved one,” says Charney, 61. “Every one of us responds to unexpected challenges. One of the important lessons is that you can train yourself to become a more resilient person.” That means adapting well and not suffering as badly (or at all) from the symptoms of mental disease.

The techniques are surprisingly easy to detail: finding reason for optimism, facing fears, relying on social support, staying physically fit, and others. But the seemingly simple method belies the seriousness and novelty of the investigation that Dr. Charney and his co-author, Steven M. Southwick, MD, undertook.

“When we started the work in resilience, not that much was really known. Steve and I started with a blank slate.” They gathered a group of people who had thrived after intense stress—POWs, victims of sexual assault and traumatic injury, survivors of natural disasters, and other groups—and videotaped them. “We started out by saying, ‘How did you do it?’” To these resilient individuals’ “prescriptions,” the doctors added their own research into neuroscience, brain imaging, and gene studies. (Before coming to Mount Sinai, Dr. Charney held senior positions at Yale School of Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health.) They then took their conclusions out into the field to see if those who instinctively practiced what they suggested were also naturally more resilient. (They were.)

For Charney, the prospects of helping people to limit their exposure to after-effects of trauma is exciting, but it also reminds him of something even more thrilling that scientists are only now beginning to understand: Our brains are so much less limited than we realize. If they can become more resilient, they can do a lot more.

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“The brain always seemed to me the most exciting frontier in medicine,” says Dr. Charney. “This work tells us that we underestimate the capacity of the human brain to change. Many of you learned when you were young that you get this IQ test and that’s how smart you are and you have to live it. It’s not true. If you exercise your brain, you’re going to improve your abilities.”

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