Growing up in the Palestinian territories under Israeli occupation and the perpetual harassment that comes with it isn’t exactly a tranquil environment to live in. Imagine a physician trying to fight endemic cases of depression, and one of the highest rates in the world. That’s what 27-year-old Mohammad Herzallah, a graduate of Al Quds University in the West Bank, currently earning his PhD at Rutgers University in the US, does.
It was in his fifth year of medical school at Al Quds University where Herzallah would think about his work and the future.
“It was a very black tunnel with no light at the end with very limited opportunities for Palestinian medical professionals to pursue careers in prestigious institutions,” says Herzallah. That same year he was recruited to participate in a research project with Rutgers to study Parkinson’s disease which then got him thinking about doing something back home for Palestinians.
In 2009, Herzallah set up a lab at Al Quds University with 22 students, about fifteen specialist psychiatrists and neurologists and five therapists. The Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative has collaborated with centres at Harvard, Rutgers, NYU, the EPFL in Switzerland and SISSA in Italy.
Of the 2,000 people that Herzallah and his colleagues examined, they discovered that about 36 percent suffered from depression. That translates into roughly 1 million Palestinians out the West Bank’s 2.9 million people. That’s much higher than rates in the US (12 percent), the UK (5 percent), China (5 percent) and Australia (4 percent).
“We are getting findings that can revolutionise all fields worldwide,” Herzallah says. “This is a golden opportunity for research, science, diagnostics and treatment from research in Palestine because we can have access to patients before being treated and then follow them up after receiving the treatment.”
Herzallah and his colleagues studied cognition and looked at genetics and how the interaction between these two affects a person’s response to medication.
“What we found is that medications like Prozac solved part of the problem but by solving that particular problem with depression they mess up another brain system that is responsible for flexible generalisations in everyday life and therefore affects memory in a very negative way,” he says. “On the other hand we found putting patients on these kinds of medications such as Prozac deviates patients from being close to normal in terms of their ability to learn from cognitive versus negative feedback.”
A study his lab is about to submit holds that anti-depressants make patients very much less sensitive to punishment learning in a way that makes them super sensitive to rewards.
“If you compare that to a normal state you will find that you are more sensitive to punishment than you are to reward. So this is a total change in personalities and that’s a big problem,” Herzallah says.
In many ways the work of the Palestinian Neuroscience Initiative is advancing the learning curve with its large pool of subjects, the data collected from them and the insight that provides for research. The progress of the initiative is gaining recognition beyond the Palestinian territories and among the medical community internationally.
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