Faces of the Foundation: Eric Altschuler

Hertz Fellow Eric Altschuler
posted: 6/18/2018
listed in Fellows

Eric Altschuler, MD, PhD, lives many lives: he’s a physicist-turned-physician, an author of books on music and literature and medicine, and a researcher who has published not just on the work he does, using cutting-edge neurology paradigms to rehabilitate injured patients, but also on diseases from Spanish Flu to PTSD.

Before beginning his career in medicine, Altschuler was an applied physicist. His Hertz Fellowship research at the University of California, Davis combined his interests in signal processing and cognitive science to probe the similarities between how the brain rehearses movement and how it actually carries it out. The work earned the 1995 Hertz Foundation thesis prize, and kindled Altschuler’s passion for understanding and treating human diseases and disorders – which, in turn, drove him to medical school.

Altschuler is one of a select few Hertz Fellows to turn his fellowship research into a career in medical care, and he says that the fellowship has had a profound effect on how he pursues patient care. “I enjoy caring for my patients,” he says. “In medicine it is crucial to be caring, careful, compassionate and conscientious.”

Where his Hertz training comes in, Altschuler says, is in noticing when known treatments fail, or where there are other anomalies, he draws upon his scientific and historical knowledge to figure out why.

It was one such moment – a patient who was a veteran he was seeing at a clinic where he worked in medical school, leaving before picking up his medications so he could go home to see his dog – that led Altschuler to first explore the possible link between animal companionship and PTSD treatment. Two decades after his first publication on the topic in 1999, the field is seeing increased attention both in veteran and medical circles.

Altschuler is also an enthusiastic student of history, publishing multiple books on the topic. He turned his passion for the music of JS Bach into the 1994 book Bachanalia: The Essential Listener’s Guide to the Well-Tempered Clavier, (prefaced by Stephen Jay Gould). He describes his role in the book as that of a “disk jockey for Bach,” carefully unraveling and analyzing the musical tricks and techniques Bach uses in the 48 fugues of his “Well-Tempered Clavier.” And last year, he published a book slightly closer to his medical specialty: A Great Literature Guide to the DSM-5 explores literary and historical depictions of disorders and diseases – from mythology to Shakespeare – and their connections to the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.“You can assemble an entire DSM just from stories that were written well before the DSM was conceived,” he says.

“History is important to medicine for a couple of reasons,” says Altschuler. “First, the first description of a phenomenon is often the best, unbiased by conventional wisdom. Second, diseases themselves cycle,” – sometimes the tricks a pathogen uses to defeat our medical or immune defenses are similar to those from generations ago.

It was this insight which led Altschuler and a team of colleagues to realize that they might be able to learn about historical flu epidemics – and perhaps future epidemics – from the biological record they leave on human populations. In 2008, the team found antibodies against the 1918 flu epidemic in the blood of Americans over 90, and that these antibodies neutralized flu strains similar to the 1918 flu, indicating that immunity can be lifelong. A year later, during the H1N1 “Swine Flu” epidemic, the CDC’s counterintuitive guidelines that younger patients be prioritized for the limited supply of vaccine was built in part upon the recognition that older patients would have some built up immunity from earlier, similar pandemics.

Despite the breadth of his exploration, Altschuler sees some common themes in his work. “I was always interested in making discoveries,” he says. “You really learn something about that doing a PhD, especially in the applied sciences. Historically, the Hertz Foundation has excelled in supporting that, and their support will be critical to the future of American leadership in innovation.”