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Humans love to solve problems. In this hour of Radiolab, diagnosis--our attempt to find out what's wrong, and give it a label.

In this day and age, we have astonishing technology--chemicals and computers and machines that can pinpoint things imperceptible to our senses. But humans aren't obsolete--intuition and creativity still lead the way both in discovering the nature of the problem, and in dealing with that knowledge.


Dr. Teri Brentnall, Dr. Mary Bronner, Emanuel Frowner, Cynthia Fu, Louis Garcia, Eric Kandel, Lu Olkowski, Dr. Robert Sapolsky and Gregory Warner

Putting Together the Puzzle

A young woman's apartment goes up in flames and a dashing young man saves the day! But to firefighter Louis Garcia, evidence at the scene didn't quite add least, they didn't quite add up to that. He hunts down the source of the blaze.

Family X ...

Comments [9]

The Frowners

Meet Emanuel Frowner. Ever since he was a little boy, Emanuel was... different. He had trouble making friends. He had trouble looking you in the eye. His brother thought he needed psychological help, but his dad didn’t think there was anything seriously wrong, and worried that a diagnosis would hold ...

Comments [39]

How To Cure What Ails You

Now that we have the ability to see inside the brain without opening anyone's skull, we'll be able to map and define brain activity and peg it to behavior and feelings. Right? Well, maybe not, or maybe not just yet. It seems the workings of our brains are rather too ...

Comments [39]

Comments [38]

Mai from Tennessee and Kentucky

Ben, to be so close to death that you can do nothing about, the laughter is to keep from crying and quitting and being frozen with despair.

It's a stuttering scream.

Sep. 10 2015 07:07 PM
Ben Cittadino from Princeton, NJ

The first segment about women named Mary and Terry and their work on pancreatic cancer was filled with distractingly bizarre laughter on their parts. At one point one of the women was concerned about a child's genetic predisposition to this cancer in the face of his father's diagnosis and she broke into uncontrollable laughter upon learning the child was adopted. Yes his father would die soon but he will survive. What a funny story???

Just listen to this report again and count the number of times the subjects break into laughter about this deadly serious subject. I know about the phenomenon of nervous laughter and maybe that was what was going on, but I was repulsed by the repeated chuckles by the subjects of this piece. The fact that your reporter never commented upon it made the whole thing a complete mess.

Not your finest moment.

Mar. 16 2015 11:39 AM
Falk Burger from tucson, AZ

Uh - you wouldn't trust a brain scan to diagnose depression, but pinpointing the location of the "soul" - that would work for you.
No comment.

Mar. 15 2015 05:31 PM
Falk Burger from tucson, AZ

You question established science and quote as "evidence" some unfounded assertion that people are "just too messy." Right. And there's no anthropogenic climate change because people are "just too puny."
Because someone got something wrong in the past is not proof that any particular procedure now being employed is wrong. That's fuzzy logic - like, someone tried to fly and failed in the past, so stop trying, Wright brothers! You can do naught but fail!
This is disappointing, guys.
Moreover, if you are seeing a therapist, chances are nearly 100% that you're there voluntarily and WANT to have your head examined.

Mar. 15 2015 05:21 PM
Michael Moynihan from Tucson, Arizona

I understand Abumrad's reservations about brain scanning techniques in the diagnosis of mental illness, but as a person with mental illness, I wholeheartedly support this type of research.

I was diagnosed with a mysterious illness similar to schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, that could only be described as "atypical psychosis." When I don't take medication, I become delusional, and begin having auditory and visual hallucinations.

Medical science saved my life in creating cutting-edge pharmaceuticals that allow me to lead a normal life. If I had had access to the kind of diagnostic techniques discussed in this broadcast, I might have been spared a life-altering criminal conviction and suicide attempt.

I wish that more people like Abumrad would understand that mental illnesses are physiological phenomenon in dire need of more effective diagnostic techniques and treatments. While it can be disturbing to think that our behavior is predicated on the physiology of the brain, this is the reality science is currently trying to understand. There are more stars in heaven than in your philosophy, Jad, and more cells in the brain, too.

Mar. 15 2015 05:12 PM
Robert Thomas from Santa Clara

Amygdala Alert! Amygdala Alert!

Junk science, dead ahead! Hard to starboard!

Algorithm Alert! Algorithm Alert! Buzzword hazzard! Hard to port!

To the Lifeboats! Doom! Doom!

Mar. 14 2015 04:53 PM
Karen Hart from United States

I would be deeply grateful if you'd do a segment on CFS/ME ,that is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. You will find intrigue,(NIH misuses millions earmarked for research),misdirection (XMRV),and despair(the patients).

Mar. 14 2015 02:04 PM
oops?! from Cheers!

Hi Radiolab. Loyal listener here, as you can tell by me listening to the archive! Please correct Robert's description at 38:09 "Because the blood has iron in it, the magnet in the Brain scanner.."

The blood has *water* in it. Water is made up of protons. The gradient magnetic field (the bang-bang noise) aligns the protons for an instant, exciting them. Then as they return to their resting state, the head coil, which is actually a very sensitive antenna, detects the radio frequency emitted by the proton returning to rest. Position information is part of the emitted radio signal. With data processing the 3D/colorful picture results.

Jan. 23 2015 04:59 PM

Dear RadioLab,

Rule # 1 of radio: You CANNOT put police sirens in your radio program! People will listen to this in their car and think a police car is incoming!

Sincerly, Startled RadioLab Listener

Mar. 07 2014 07:20 PM
Jie from Australia

Sorry for the very late note, as I have only caught on to Radiolab recently and am catching up on episodes.

LOVE the show, though I sometimes have to filter the simplification process used for a broader audience.

fyi, the thymus is enlarged in babies as the immune cells that reside there then leave the gland and live elsewhere in the body as we age; the thymus shrinks as we get older. The physicians were comparing the thymuses of SIDS babies with those of adults, not with anatomy dissections from centuries ago.

Jan. 08 2014 08:08 PM

rockin the Schwantner at 6:06! You make us percussionists proud :)

Nov. 13 2012 08:42 PM
Duke from Pa. from Dallastown, Pa.

Not sure what the point of the first story was. No "payoff". Same for second story. Stop teasing us!!

Oct. 18 2012 01:34 PM
Peter from Portland

Actually, the song is The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, Prelude 1 in C. Gounod's Ave Maria superimposes a melody over the Prelude.

Great show, guys!

Oct. 22 2011 09:57 AM


Thank you! I had forgotten about this, but I come back 2 years later and find the answer. Thank you very much.

Jul. 01 2011 01:18 AM


It is the Bach-Gounod version of Ave Maria.


Jan. 25 2011 07:50 PM

Anyone know the name of the piano piece at the end?

Jul. 28 2009 02:21 AM

I love listening to NPR, and yet had never heard of Radiolab until today (which I found via a link on another Web site). What a gem! I look forward to listening to all the shows made available online.

I guess I wanted to say Thank You for this show, specifically the portion about familial pancreatic cancer. My mother passed away from pancreatic cancer 3-1/2 years ago, and listening to Drs. Brentnall and Bronner was very moving.

Feb. 08 2009 01:46 AM

Thanks for another great show. It was nice to hear someone reiterate that we might not know what "normal" is in relation to mental illness, even though with our fancy "modern" science, we think we do right now.

Back when the SIDs diagnosis occurred, they thought their science was giving them the right answers, too.

Eventually, people will realize that "normal" isn't so easily come to when you're talking about the brain's chemical balance.

Jan. 24 2009 07:52 PM

I hope some of your banter back and forth is scripted and either Robert or Jad is supposed to play devil's advocate at times. Especially since Jad took issue with computer diagnosis of depression. As stated in the piece, it was only 85-86% right. The machine is only a tool that doctors use to corroborate their analysis of a patient. It's, I'm sure, only one of many tools doctors will use to do so. Jad's loathing of this method is very strange given that during the Race episode he was in bed with the scientist who told him Jad's 'inner self' was more European than he originally thought. And as far as invasive, genetic testing/profiling is way more so. Are you against that too, Jad?

Jan. 20 2009 04:08 PM
Brandon Sussman

The accompanying flowchart is not the way I learned to chart 'if-then-else' constructs.
It is not invalid but it is harder to read quickly.
Where did it come from? Did you make it up?

Jan. 16 2009 02:18 PM

Love the show. Been listening since 2007.
Though it seems some listeners haven't been enjoying the direction of the recent episodes, I haven't been bothered much by the change as the stories still engaged me (and I just love hearing Jad and Robert's voices).

On the flip side, specific to this episode, I cringed just a bit in hearing the hosts argue with each other. My ears felt the tension.

Jan. 12 2009 07:53 PM

I'm just gonna throw my support behind fun sound effects. I notice in almost every episode someone complains about the sound effects, and I really really like them.

Jan. 11 2009 01:33 PM

OK, I listened to your last two episodes on a long road trip and I'm getting annoyed. Three things: First, it seems to be a habit to leave the middle story in it's 'unresolved' state. This is fair, as many questions remain open in our current understanding. That doesn't mean you shouldn't "wrap up" the tale. I'm often left confused about the direction of current study, or really what is currently understood, simply because you leave the strings to dangle. Second, what's with the dramatic pauses? At the moment of anticipation, you often put in a few extra seconds before you answer the big question. Why? There is enough drama inherent in the stories themselves. My third issue is related, and I think was brought in comments in the very first episode of the season: think you are going overboard with the sound effects? Particularly that extra loud WOOOSH noise when you are trying to say that everything came together. It hurts.

Otherwise I love you. But keep it simple. The subjects are enough.

Jan. 10 2009 12:21 AM

Anyone else having trouble downloading the episode?

Jan. 08 2009 07:41 PM

for Gavin:

What happened to Patient X

He had to have his entire pancreas removed. It means that he's now a diabetic - since his pancreas isn't there to help manage his digestion. And he's got enzymes he's supposed to sprinkle over every meal to help break it down. He's alive today, though, because they did confirm that he was developing cancer and they were able to remove it before it spread rapidly in his body.

Jan. 06 2009 07:42 PM

a nitpick: marie curie died of "from aplastic anemia, almost certainly contracted from exposure to radiation" and not cancer... the whole characterization of her "like dipping her arm into vats of uranium and dying soon afterward of cancer" seems to exaggerate the facts, per wikipedia, but sure sounded cool!

thanks for a great show!

Jan. 06 2009 01:10 PM

I was surprised by the ending of the pancreatic cancer story--unless I'm sorely mistaken, we never found out what happened to Patient X! Did he dodge the cancer? Was he dead by the time all this research was finished? I understand the focus shifted to the researchers, who I found interesting, but I wanted at least a sentence on the fate of Patient X, who instigated everything.

Jan. 05 2009 10:00 PM

Loved it! I was especially moved by the story of Emmanuel and his dad. I was on the brink of tears throughout, and I don't cry easily--at all.

Jan. 05 2009 11:28 AM

Burk, they thought they HAD proper controls. They just didn't know the variables they had to control. They didn't know that poor people had smaller thymus glands. The only way to know how big thymus glands were was through dissection, and the only people they were dissecting were poor. It's entirely possible that there's some factor consistent in the type of people who volunteer for fMRIs for research purposes that makes them have more/less activity in the facial recognition region of the brain. Nobody knows, that's the point.

Arthur, it's technically in the chest, but it is against the esophagus, and is pretty high in the chest. Bit lower than they described it, but is close enough to the thyroid to cause cancer if you irradiate it.

Great episode as usual, but I gotta say, I didn't really enjoy the first story, about pancreatic cancer. It really didn't follow that much of a story (Guy's family has high rate of pancreatic cancer, two scientists go to the guy's town and test all his family's blood, find genetic cause of rare form of pancreatic cancer, end of story), and the research is... well... irrelevant for most of us. It's a rare form of cancer, and there's still not a cure for it, and from the sounds of it, anyone who is at risk for is probably already knows from their family history. It really sounded vaguely of a This American Life story. Just not one of the ones that was particularly interesting, but with the excellent Radio Lab flair for polish.

Instead, you should have just replaced it with just talking to V.S Ramachandran or Neil DeGrasse-Tyson. About anything. I don't care what. They're just awesome.

Jan. 04 2009 09:56 PM
Arthur Finn

From Wikipeida: The thymus is in the chest. The thyroid is in the neck. Was it in fact the thyroid that was at the center of that story?

Jan. 02 2009 08:23 PM
Burk Braun

I was puzzled by the ending of this show. Has the concept of controls not occurred to the presenters? The thymus/SIDs story bears little relation to the current fMRI/depression story because the algorithm that discriminates depression from normal in the latter used controls. It was fed known normal (control) and depressed patients for learning and testing. The thymus/SIDs story makes quite evident that no one looked at the population at large at the time to check on normal vs non-normal status in children of that age. matched for "age, and intelligence quotient ... and no history of ... neurological disorder or head injury", etc., as did Cynthia Fu's group. They did not do the proper controls, and this is one way that scientific critique has advanced over the years. The Nobel prize really does mean something!

Fu CHY, Mourao-Miranda J, Costafreda SG, Khanna A, Marquand A, Williams SCR, Brammer MJ. Pattern classification of sad facial processing: toward the development of neurobiological markers in depression. Biological Psychiatry 2008;63:656-662.

Jan. 02 2009 03:32 PM

Elma isn't in Eastern WA - it's in Western!

Dec. 31 2008 10:35 PM

Fascinating as usual. This episode has some really interesting music 'bumpers and scoring' trough-out. Is there somewhere on the website that lists some of the pieces used? I realize certain elements are specifically designed by a composer as 'score' to the stories (such as the cello and vibes behind the beginning of the SIDS segment), other music seems to come from other recordings that have been layered in... such as the romantic classical piece during the 'break' 23 minutes into the show, or the haunting piano piece that closes the program.
Where do I find info about the music used for Radio Lab?

Dec. 31 2008 05:41 PM
Jason Kucsma

by the way, Radiolab is hands-down some of the best audio programming I've heard in a LONG time. Keep up the great work. Your show prompted me to finally make good on my promise to contribute to my local station -- WNYC.

Dec. 31 2008 02:51 PM
Jason Kucsma

Although the story seemed to bore Robert, I was excited to hear more about the Resurrectionists. Check out the digital collection put together by the New York Academy of Medicine for more background:

Dec. 31 2008 02:49 PM
howie zelaznik

I have been on Science Friday, but your series is the best.

You might want to have a show in which the two of you and the two quirks and quarks guys interview each other about asking questions about science.

Dec. 30 2008 06:56 PM

Thanks, Peet - We'll look into that! Until we get it fixed -- you can always download it here, manually.

Dec. 30 2008 12:25 PM

Another gem from the Radiolab team. I could not find this episode in the podcast feed ... shouldn't it be?

Dec. 30 2008 05:39 AM

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